NYC-via-Denver drummer Rudy Royston‘s résumé as a sideman spans more than a decade and a half; he first came to prominence behind trumpeter Ron Miles, but might be best known for his tenure in the JD Allen Trio from 2008 to 2012, as well as his presence on Dave Douglas‘s Be Still and Time Travel; this month, he can be heard on Tom Tallitsch‘s Ride and Camille Thurman‘s Origins. But even if you’re just discovering him now, almost everything you need to know about his meteoric power behind the kit can be learned from “Play on Words,” the second track and early highlight of his debut album as a leader, 303. (Buy it from Amazon.) He’s well beyond merely providing a platform for the other musicians on the album to riff off. On this track, he’s fully at the controls, spilling out a flood of polyrhythmic flourishes and rolls that overwhelm like an all-crescendo barrage. There’s a distinct bop-influenced theme at the beginning that resurfaces as an occasional refrain, and the rhythmic momentum is steady throughout, but the dekes and jukes start weaving in and out of the structure prominently enough that instrumental solos take on the tone of two-person sparring sessions. You half expect to get pulled out by the dead-of-night tide, like Sterling Hayden in Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye.

But, to reiterate: “Play on Words” features almost everything you need to know about Royston. His playing is robustly unpredictable and bristles with restlessness when it needs to be, propelling uptempo sprints like “Play on Words” or “Bownze” with a fluidity that never really upends or overwhelms the songs’ motions. But the first impression of his playing, a gently ebbing wave of lightly windblown hi-hats and gradually emerging soul-jazz grooves on the meditative, borderline-psychedelic opener “Mimi Sunrise,” reveals more. That song is the drummer-as-bandleader statement that shows Royston’s more nuanced touches, revealing his technique as not really a trick of showmanship or virtuosity, but one of limitless possibilities of texture.

Stream “Mimi Sunrise”:

There’s some kind of pull on 303 that lurks beneath even the more straightforward compositions—one where it’s not only hard to predict when steadiness will take a turn for the freewheeling or chaos will reform into order, but where that sort of distinction ceases to really matter. One of the big draws of the song selection is the juxtaposition of two attention-getting and unusual takes on non-jazz standards—Radiohead‘s “High and Dry,” where the simple, familiar melody is spun off into a gauzy airiness that gives Royston’s percussion plenty of opportunity to expand the spaces, and a beautifully foggy last-call take on Mozart‘s “Ave Verum Corpus,” where he brings the kit back into the distance and makes it a suggestive presence rather than the driving force. With these cuts and his original compositions—contemplative reveries like the companion pieces “Prayer (for the People)” and “Prayer (for the Earth)” (the latter notable by his absence), or free-flowing suite-structure works like the agitated title track and the mood-swing underworld descent that is “Gangs of New York”—Royston takes on his role from every angle, reveling not merely in a specific personal style but in a litany of them.

Stream “High and Dry”:

The NYC-centric cast of players Royston’s assembled around him is almost preternatural when it comes to clicking with his drumming. Their juxtapositions each have their own impact, their own personality. Paired with Royston’s ricocheting pulse, guitarist Nir Felder cuts right on through, only to take on the choppy and fierce qualities of the rhythm he’s supposedly overlaying. The horns (Jon Irabagon on sax and Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet) let melodies glide over the steadier backbeats, and scatter when those melodies splinter apart under increasing pressure. Pianist Sam Harris plays like he’s weaving through traffic—sometimes against the traffic—in a way that makes his ultralight, endlessly agile maneuvering seem collision-proof. And bassists Yasushi Nakamura and Mimi Jones sneakily double-up and (sometimes simultaneously) counterweigh the beats. It’ll take a lot of listens to get entirely familiar with the places each piece is going—especially considering how few of them finish in the same mood or mode they start—and there’s a lot to take in in each moment. Good thing Royston’s exactly the kind of fearless guide you want through it all.

Nate Patrin

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