The most demonstrative note that Andrew Cyrille played on Tuesday night — a resounding thwack on the snare — was also the last. The drummer, a key presence across the full spectrum of jazz since the early 1960s, was wrapping up more than four hours of largely improvised exploration on the opening night of New York City’s annual Vision Festival. For the concluding set, Cyrille duetted with Peter Brötzmann, a German saxophonist known for his sandpaper tone and raucous flow. Brötzmann opened the set with blaring doom-blues blasts, and instead of attempting to match his partner’s fury, Cyrille offered a steady flow of controlled energy, playing crisp rolls and compact phrases across his snare and tom-toms.
The drummer’s approach threw the subtler characteristics of Brötzmann’s huge sound into stark relief, helping to bring out the raw pathos underneath the saxist’s bearish intensity. For longtime fans of the drummer, who will turn 80 this November, it was a familiar sensation: Call it the Cyrille effect, heard throughout his vast catalog of recordings with luminaries ranging from late avant-garde icon Cecil Taylor to Swing Era saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins and contemporary piano star Vijay Iyer.
If Tuesday’s show had a theme, it was that — the way Cyrille’s deft, nuanced and intelligently responsive playing highlighted the contributions of whoever he was onstage with at the moment. The Lifetime Achievement honoree at this year’s 24th Vision Festival — an annual NYC showcase of impassioned improv and outside-the-box sounds rooted in the Sixties free-jazz revolution, running through June 16th at Brooklyn’s Roulette — Cyrille stayed onstage the entire night on Tuesday, performing in eight different settings (each a duo or a trio) with collaborators drawn from throughout his illustrious career. Impassive beneath his stylish black hat, sitting behind his Luwdig bass drum decorated with the initials “AC,” Cyrille seemed tirelessly engaged, reveling in the act of listening and responding. His performance served as a reminder that, though he’s aligned with a wing of jazz characterized by ecstatic abandon, he’s always been the picture of poise and alertness.
Vintage photos projected behind the stage traced Cyrille’s half-century-plus musical journey, which has taken him from studies at Juilliard to the heart of the jazz vanguard and beyond. Appropriately, several of the night’s sets reaffirmed old bonds from way back. Cyrille spoke of how he’d first met Brötzmann in Paris in 1966, and earlier in the night, a reunion with fellow percussion master Milford Graves — Cyrille’s fellow pioneer in liberating jazz drumming from strict meter in the early-to-mid Sixties and his partner on the 1974 DIY LP Dialogue of the Drums — took the form of a front-porch–style hang, with each musician sharing memories of first encountering the other. Graves, born in Jamaica, Queens, recalled how in the early Sixties rumors began to circulate about the Brooklyn-born Cyrille, then a rising star on the scene; Cyrille, in turn, told a story of Graves racing elevated trains as a young daredevil.
Talk flowed right into music, with Graves playing buoyant, booming, Latin-inspired rhythms on a self-assembled array of handpainted drums and Cyrille contributing tasteful accents and ornaments. At the set’s end, the 77-year-old Graves teared up when describing how health issues had almost prevented him from making the show but that he did it for the Vision Festival and for Cyrille. Standing beside his peer, Cyrille leaned down and kissed Graves on the head.
Cyrille also played a supportive yet crucial role during a set by his group Haitian Fascination, which nods to the music of his parents’ homeland. Along with Haitian drummer Jean Guy-Rene, Cyrille set up a lively, minimal pulse using his bass drum and the metal rims of his snare, providing a launchpad for the spoken-word flights of poet (and Miles Davis biographer) Quincy Troupe, whose verses traced the arc of African American music from bebop to Beyoncé. A set with another vocalist, Lisa Sokolov, whom Cyrille said he had played with on Broadway, was a playful musical conversation, as the drummer answered Sokolov’s impressionistic scat singing with melodic mallet phrases on his tautly tuned tom-toms.
Watching respective sets by the trio of Cyrille, cellist Tomeka Reid and dancer Beatrice Capote, and the duo of the drummer and video artist Stefan Roloff, almost felt like witnessing Cyrille’s collaborators through his eyes. He observed with equal intent as Capote leaped and swooped gracefully around the stage or as Roloff’s abstract, computer-sourced images — first animated masks and globes, then disturbing scenes of police brutality — played on a screen in front of him. The former set brought out many of Cyrille’s sonic signatures, from finely detailed march-like cadences to ear-catching phrases orchestrated across his palette of brightly toned cymbals, while the latter brought some of the night’s more moody and ominous drumming, a constant low-volume bass-drum throb peppered with deliberately erratic snare strikes.
A duet with 84-year-old New Orleans saxophonist Edward “Kidd Jordan” embodied a deep, earthy poignancy, but the night’s most affecting moments came during Cyrille’s trio with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and guitarist Brandon Ross (a version of the group heard on the excellent 2018 ECM LP Lebroba, which featured Bill Frisell in place of Ross). Cyrille stripped his sound down to the barest essence here, often caressing his snare with brushes or simply striking a triangle, as Smith played piercing, emotive phrases and Ross offered painterly atmospherics. This was free-form balladry of the highest order, and if Cyrille’s contribution at times seemed barely detectable, he was simultaneously never more present, enriching the moment with just the right dabs of sonic color.
The concert’s diverse sets — as Vision Fest Artistic Director Patricia Nicholson noted, all curated by Cyrille himself — flowed together beautifully, and a brief moment of archival commentary helped to sum up their collective impact. During a set break, some projected text appeared on the screen behind the stage. It was a quote from the late Cecil Taylor, who worked with Cyrille for a solid decade in the Sixties and Seventies, reunited with him later in life and probably knew as well as anyone what it felt like to step onstage with a drummer of such focus and sensitivity.
“Mr. Cyrille had a secret,” Taylor said, in an observation drawn from an interview with journalist Ted Panken. ”You could take him wherever you wanted, and he had the ability to distill whatever the structures were, to go with you there, and react in the most musical way in any situation. He understood — and understands — about the joy of accompanying, and feeding, and being fed. He is meticulous as well as exquisite. He is the epitome of the logical, but beyond that, he’s magical.”
On Tuesday, time and again, the drummer deployed finely honed musical logic in the service of collaborative improvisational magic. And though his playing rarely drew attention to itself, by the time he struck that final note, Mr. Cyrille’s unassuming genius was hardly a secret to anyone present.