Following in the footsteps of Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Kendrick Scott, and others, drummer Jeremy Dutton has established himself as a worthy member of the great Houston drum tradition. He’s equally comfortable holding down the drum chair in groups of his peers and those led by acclaimed veterans like Ambrose Akinmusire and Vijay Iyer.
Dutton is also a probing composer, using his keen melodic sense to explore both his internal and external worlds. This Thursday, May 31, Dutton will convene a top notch group to perform his newest project, Mirrors. We caught up with Dutton to talk about his mindset on the bandstand, how he conceives of his sound, and the composers he admires.
The Jazz Gallery: Are you gigging a lot these days?
Jeremy Dutton: It ebbs and flows, but yeah, pretty consistently.
TJG: What kinds of gigs are you playing?
JD: There are some gigs that are jazz clubs and some that are concerts. It changes month to month. This month I’m doing a good mix of things—I’ll be at the Vanguard with Vijay Iyer, I have some stuff with James Francies out of town, and then I’ll be at the Gallery a few times with Harish [Raghavan], and then for Melissa Aldana’s commission project, and James’ [Francies] commissioned work. It should be a good month—some stuff out of town, and the Gallery is one of my favorite places to play.
TJG: Would you call playing The Jazz Gallery a concert or a jazz club hit?
JD: What I like about the Gallery is it can feel like either depending on the music being played and the audience vibe. I think it’s kind of in between the two.
TJG: Do you play differently in the two contexts?
JD: I try not to. I want to be consistent, and in every setting I am who I am. There are things like playing to the room and understanding balance, but in general, the core way that I approach playing music, the baseline, remains the same.
TJG: What is that baseline?
JD: For me, it’s about being conversational. It’s all about the moment and making something spontaneously, as opposed to everyone just playing their role. That can be cool too, and the moment might call for that, but in general I try to bring openness to what I do so the music can move however it wants to move. The way we do it in soundcheck doesn’t have to be the way we do it on stage. Anything can happen up there—sometimes it’s a mistake. Somebody might go to a section too soon or someone might forget a section. Then we have to react. But in that reaction there’s often an opportunity for something really cool, because the only way to move forward is for everyone to trust each other, and to me, that’s when the music sounds best. So that’s my baseline: listening to everyone and trying to receive what they’re playing and reciprocate that energy.
TJG: How does the conversation get started? You’ll be leading this gig, so do you have a preconceived notion of where the conversation should go?
JD: In my experience things work better when I give people less direction. I try to hire people where I like not only what they play, but also the decisions that they make. Having played with these musicians a lot, I’m not worried about who will start the conversation or what’s going to happen. I also try not to give people verbal directions—the challenge is if I want people to do something, or if I want a certain vibe to come across, how can I embody that in what I’m playing as opposed to having to tell them? How can I communicate that sonically? When I was younger, I used to do the opposite, but now I understand that if you tell them in words, you’re cutting off possibilities. There are things that I want to get across musically, but at any moment something better than my original idea could happen, and I want to be open to that. From a bandleader standpoint, I don’t want to say anything that gives people doubt. I don’t want my band mates to question their decision-making. I hired them to make decisions. Whatever mistakes happen, they’re going to happen, but placing my trust in their judgment is what makes the music live to me—that’s what makes it fun.
TJG: Can we talk for a bit about what you’re putting out there from a conversational standpoint? Your style of playing seems to be heavy in implied rhythm and polyrhythm. How would you describe what you’re trying to achieve from a rhythmic and textural point of view?
JD: It doesn’t always come across the way I want it to because that’s just how playing music works, but the ultimate idea is trying to use the drums as a choir—a bunch of different voices that are all happening at the same time, all representing the same thing. I’m still trying to understand it, but when I do it correctly, it comes across as a layer with a number of parts that are somewhat busy, but all interlocking in a way that when you hear it as a whole, makes sense, and adds to the group dynamic. In visual terms, it’s almost like a net of rhythm. Instead of time being linear—the bass drum is doing this, and the snare drum is doing that—what if each piece contributes to a broader grid and each piece is required for the whole thing to work? Ideally it can augment what’s going on rhythmically and melodically.
TJG: It’s interesting that you’re aware of exactly what I was referring to. What about this concept are you still trying to understand? What is it that you think you don’t understand?
JD: There are lots of things I don’t understand (laughs). I think understanding input versus output can be difficult. What you play, and the way you feel when you’re playing something can be very different from how it sounds in the context of the group and in the context of the audience.
Also, I’m still learning how to utilize that rhythmic concept in a way that augments the music. You don’t want to be doing something that’s really cool but in the way of the music. There is an element of self-discovery in figuring out how to apply the concept as well.
TJG: How do you identify what is the “best” sound? Are you judging as you’re playing, or is it more listening back and wishing you could change things?
JD: When you’re executing, you can’t worry about how your ideas will sound. At best, it feels like everything is falling into place, and it feels like your decisions, and everything that’s going on in the band has already happened. It just feels correct.
The hardest thing to do in any art is create and edit at the same time. Usually you have to create, edit, and then eventually put out a final product. For me, the best feeling is when that process all seems to happen at once. In the moment, there really isn’t enough time to have regrets. Now that doesn’t stop me from having them sometimes, but if you’re truly in the moment, there’s no time for that—the music is moving on. The longer you beat yourself up over what you did wrong, the more you forget to listen and keep the energy and the spirit of the music alive.
TJG: In a previous interview, you used the analogy of going through a door to being in the zone musically. Is that what we’re talking about here?
JD: Yeah, when I’ve gone through the door it feels like there’s no wrong—there’s nothing preventing me from doing anything that I want to do. I can receive information, I can add information; everything is happening the way it needs to happen. It’s not that deep a concept. It’s just a way I visually represent what it feels like to access the part of me which is most fruitful—the part of me which is most open.
Everybody’s door is different. For me, anxiety, fear, or feeling like I’m not good enough can keep the door closed. The challenge is moving through those problems and understanding that there’s nothing preventing you from doing what you want to do except you. As you listen and learn and understand, you find that the door is your own creation, so if you want to go through the door, just go through the damn door.
TJG: Does pulling on the door harder make it easier to open (laughs)?
JD: Of course physical force can help, but for me there are things that make the door easier to open: preparation, practice, relaxing, and generally just being okay with who I am as a person. When I feel good with who I am, I can understand that the anxiety and the fear, or whatever it is that is holding me back isn’t real.
TJG: Looking at some of your previous shows’ titles—”Everything I Am,” “Things Done Changed,” “A Dream is Only a Dream,” and this one is called “Mirrors”—there seems to be a constant theme of reflection. Is there a concept or experience that underpins all of these?
JD: Reflection is definitely a theme, and it comes through my experience in New York and my experience as a person. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more introspective. If I find myself in a bad situation, I usually try to think about what I can do to change rather than just feeling sorry for myself. It’s important to look at how your reactions to events are affecting you. Is the situation itself bothering you, or is it something within you that’s causing you to react that way?
There’s an energy in music—and in all arts—of general insecurity. It’s easy to get down on yourself and think, “Everybody’s doing well but me,” or have doubts about what it is that you have to offer. Thoughts like that can be harmful if you don’t handle them the right way. It’s taken me a long time to realize that these thoughts aren’t really about how or what other people are doing. For me at least, it’s been about accepting who I am and understanding that everyone’s life is different. And that seems like an obvious point. But people—actually, let me not speak for everyone. I, at least have felt like sometimes I get caught up in thinking in terms of comparisons. I’ve only recently began to understand the qualities that make me, me. The more I can understand those qualities, the easier it is for me to relate to my environment, the easier it is for me to understand other people, and the easier it is for me to just play music.
This particular show title, “Mirrors,” comes from that in a major way. The underlying theme deals with not what you see, but what you value. There’s a big mirror in my room, and I look in this mirror all the time. Sometimes I’ll be wearing something I don’t like or maybe my hair is messed up. I thought it was interesting that regardless of how I feel about my appearance, it’s the same person looking in the mirror every time. I’m not changing, but my outlook, and what I’m expecting to see is. I’m assigning value by looking through the lense of society’s expectations.
TJG: Do you think this insecurity is a New York thing? It sounds like this self-reflection process began once you arrived in New York.
JD: I don’t think so. People aren’t only insecure in New York (laughs). I see it everywhere.
TJG: But it is markedly different than Houston?
JD: It’s only recently that I’ve started to have these thoughts and notice the things that are happening around me. It’s not necessarily only a New York thing, but I see it so much here that it bothers me. Everybody deals with it in a certain way, but so many people here are angry or negative, or constantly on edge. To me, that’s just a sign of people being dissatisfied with their own lives and trying to cope rather than aligning themselves with reality.
TJG: Has the reality of New York lived up to the hype for you?
JD: For me, I would say New York hasn’t been what I thought it would be, but in a way it’s been better. It not turning out the way I thought gave me an opportunity to really think, reflect, and grow in different ways than I was expecting.
TJG: What did you think it was going to be?
JD: What does everybody think they’re going to do when they come up here? I thought it was going to be like the ‘90s, but it’s not the ‘90s anymore (laughs). I never really sat down and imagined what it would be like here, so I don’t have a concrete answer, but I like the life that I’m living now a lot, and I’m very happy that it worked out the way it worked out for me.
I’ll be honest: I felt a lot of pressure moving here from Houston—just to perform and hold up the drum legacy that’s been set up by all those guys. I’m fortunate enough to know so many of them and they’re very gracious and have given me so much. But I had to realize that this is my life. I have to do things the way that I have to do them. I can’t just accept someone else’s ideas of what I should or shouldn’t be. Leaving my self-worth at the hands of someone else can leave me vulnerable to a lot of negative feelings. And for a while that was how I evaluated my self-worth. But over the years I’ve learned how dangerous that can be. A lot of the people that you’ll allow to judge you—even well-known guys—aren’t necessarily comfortable with their own lives or their own work. Their outlook and their opinions towards you may be compromised. I still love a lot of the people who I idolized when I got here. But there is a difference between loving them, and treating their opinion as the be-all and end-all. That being said a lot of the criticism and instruction I’ve received has been very helpful and, regardless of how harsh it may have been, vital to my progress as a musician and a person.
Now I’m not saying that you should accept everything that you do as if you have no faults. But the other side of that—self-hatred, hating what you’re doing and what you’re playing is so destructive. There is such a thing as a great musician, and there is such a thing as not being good enough. But a lot of people just stop when they get the feeling that they aren’t good enough.
You may not be good enough now, but what are you going to do every day to up your level? For me, that’s my entire story—practicing. Of course, natural talent plays into that equation. But most of it has just been really hard work. It is okay if you’re not good enough, so long as you try to do something about it. Know your weaknesses, know what you need to do, and don’t stop until you’re at the level you want to be on regardless of what anyone says.
TJG: How does this theme of reflection play out in the music specifically? If one were to attend this show and not know the title, would they be aware of the thematic material—either in the compositions, the arranging, or even in the band’s makeup? I noticed that you have two horns on this gig, which is a change for you, right?
JD: It is. I would hope that the theme would come across based off of the music I’ve written. A lot of the melodies I’ve composed work as reflections of one another. I try to bring back the same material over and over again and weave it into the music in different ways. So it’s the same idea, but it looks a little different. When you look in a mirror, depending on where you’re looking from, you may see yourself or what’s around you in a different way.
That said, even if the music doesn’t give someone the distinct impression of mirrors, I hope that it imparts some frequency or moment that sparks a feeling of reflection. In everything I do now, that’s the goal. Questioning and reflection started a journey of personal growth for me, so I want to be able to share that.
TJG: Is there a musical tool or device that you think can lead to a reflective state by the listener?
JD: Definitely. I think it’s different for everyone, but for me really good melodies and good use of harmony can evoke that feeling in me, even if I don’t notice it at the time. I might feel something, and maybe later I figure out what that something is. It also comes back to the musicians you are playing with. I take care to hire people who have a lot of empathy and a good eye for balance and understanding a total piece of music versus just focusing on their individual part. Everyone I’m playing with is really good at seeing the big picture, and because we all know each other personally, the embedded trust makes it easy to talk on stage. In communicating any message musically, it always begins with the people you hire.
TJG: Are there any musicians who write melodies or harmonies that put you in a reflective state?
JD: There are a lot of really good writers out there. Ambrose [Akinmusire] for sure. Some of the first things I wrote when I was just getting started were aiming for his sound. If you ask me, he’s written some of the best melodies of the past few years by a long shot.
Aaron Parks is also a crazy writer. Everything he writes is in service to the total picture of the composition. In so much music, the melody can be really good, but the harmony might not be super-memorable, or the other way around. But in everything Aaron puts out, it feels like the melody and the harmony are working together to present a very clear picture of what’s happening. He’s also written some of the best melodies of the past few years in my opinion. What distinguishes a good melody from a great melody? A great melody is just timeless. It doesn’t matter how old the song is, when you hear it, it brings you back to the same feeling you had when you first heard it. That to me is hard to do, and that’s my goal when writing.
Vijay [Iyer] is another example. I’m trying not to be biased just because I’m playing with him, but he can take all three aspects of music—rhythmic, harmony, and melody, and wrap them into each other in a way that creates both a vehicle for improvisation and a song with great structure and movement.
Robert Glasper, Walter Smith III, and Harish [Raghavan] have also been huge influences. When I first started composing and was trying to emulate what I was listening to, I really liked the way Robert used harmony in his early trio stuff. That sound has gotten so popular, like—“Oh, he’s just doing the Glasper thing.” But the way that Robert does that stuff is so much better than the stereotypical way which we laugh about now. For Walter, as well as for all of the musicians I mentioned, on top of having great harmony and melodies, he has a way of composing where you just instantly know that it’s him. For Harish, his rhythmic concept is so strong, but his melodies are really clear, and they don’t come across as heady or contrived. And his harmony moves in a way which is just inspiring.
For drummers, Kendrick Scott writes really great tunes. Tony Williams. Victor Lewis—I’m not sure a lot of people know, but he writes some great music. Eric Harland is another great composer. Elvin [Jones] also, apart from his Coltrane quartet stuff has a lot of really great albums. There’s an Andrew Hill album called Judgement with Elvin on it where they play a lot of stuff in odd times, and a lot of it’s really swinging. It has the Andrew Hill sound, but a lot of it is in 7, 9, or other odd meters.
Jeremy Dutton plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, May 31, 2018. The group features Mr. Dutton on drums, Marquis Hill on trumpet, Maria Grand on tenor saxophone, James Francies on piano, and Rashaan Carter on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.