Jazz interview with jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Jeff Cosgrove: – I spent most of my growing up years in Alexandria, Virginia. It is a small city outside of Washington DC. My parents were not really big music people but apparently I was right from the beginning. I’ve been told that the only way I would fall asleep is if they had the radio on. We would go to see a lot of the military parade bands in Washington DC when my dad was still in the military. Then my great-grandmother would take us as a family to see the Boston Pops a lot when we were in Boston visiting family. She loved show tunes and the Pops concerts. Also, my grandfather would take me to see music too. He took me to see the Temptations, Ray Charles, and a lot of other local jazz acts. He was really my entry point into music. I loved the music we would go to see together, there was just such an incredible energy to it. There was always music around when I was with my grandfather – at his store, in the car, at the house and I loved it, except opera, I just couldn’t dig that.
I had failed attempts at playing the piano when I was a kid and the clarinet as well but there was something in me that yearned to play an instrument and make music. I really wanted to play the tenor saxophone but my parents told me I wasn’t big enough or strong enough to carry it home which is how I ended up torturing everyone around me with the clarinet. At twelve years old, I was able to choose the drums. I was hooked from then on and I haven’t looked back.
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JC: – My sound has grown out of poor technique. What I mean by that is that I am not able to play very fast, I’ve never been able to get the drum rudiments together, I have hearing damage, and my feel is very loose. I had to learn to work with what I had. I found some great teachers who straightened out what technical challenges we could and I talked to a lot of musicians I admired. At first, it was people who were my age or close geographically, as time progressed, it became my musical heroes.
The first thing that all of the musicians I admired told me was to find the sound that resonated within me. Creating a sound that would be pleasing for me to listen to and put joy out into the universe. Once I could hear that sound inside of me without the instrument, the more I played the sound I heard in my head would more naturally come out. It was not just about striking the drums and/or cymbals but understanding and loving my limitations. My lack of technique allowed me to be more comfortable leaving space. It gave me the feeling of the end of the notes I played, which to me, made them more valuable.
My sound continues to evolve with the idea of every time I sit at the drums I try to feel at home. To feel happy, joyous, and free and convey that feeling out through my instrument. A connection to a deeper me.
When I get to spend time with my heroes, it shows me what the true mastery of sound is. I got to lend some equipment to Joey Baron and Billy Hart in the same month and sit with them while they got set up for their performance. Billy and Joey had never seen the drums or cymbals they were going to play before that day and they set them up and sounded like I had heard them on every record and performance I’d ever heard them on. They both have such a deep connection to their sound that transcends the instrument in front of them and that is where I am trying to get. That total expression of me through vibration.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JC: – I have a pretty diligent and organized practice routine that I change every six months. I’ll take 10 exercises and split them over two days, practicing 5 things each day for 5 to 10 minutes each. It works out to each group of five getting worked out 3 times a week for six months. I feel that I can really start to feel some control over the exercises and I have some fun with them. It also helps me to be focused when I sit down to practice.
One of the main exercises I have worked on for many years is something I got from Andrew Cyrille. The object is to have a metronome on and count out loud with the metronome and keep strong time with your voice. With my limbs, I purposely play out of time, faster or slower or busy or spacious, to internalize the time that I am counting out loud. That really locks in my time but also gives me the confidence that I can pull away from the time and come back to it.
Another fun exercise I’ve been working on is that I will take one of my compositions and assign drums/cymbals to each of the notes. I’ll press notes into drums to change pitches and get the feeling of really trying to play melodically. Sometimes, I will just play the head of the composition as it is written, no soloing. Other times, I’ll start with a chorus of the melody and then take a solo chorus, going back and forth. I can keep the rhythm the same and change the pitches or I can keep the pitches the same and vary the rhythm. The idea is to get more comfortable with playing melodically and soloing, two things that I really want to improve my confidence in.
I really try to work on my sound every day. How I can feel the space at the end of each note that I play. I want to create this feedback loop within me where I can put my sound out and it comes back to me and it is music. I look for the beauty, joy, vulnerability and emotional connection between me, my instrument, and the music.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
JC: – I actually invite my disparate influences into my music. They are part of my life and they should be part of my music. It is all part of the healing energy that I look for from my music. There have been parts of my life where I have found myself compartmentalizing aspects which I think has kept me from being fully open to the musical experience.
Something I do to connect the disparate influences is play what is called “an offering”. I will speak and play a sentence at the same time. For example, “I tripped because I was not paying attention.” I will then create a response with my voice and drums, “I will be more conscious and connected to the moment I am in.” This really helps me connect every moments into my music. Sometimes I can think about difficult things that are going on in my life and this offering process allows me to accept and move on from them.
Some of the best influences on my music have been my kids. The things they say, the way they think, it seeps into me and into my music. There certainly moments that are frustrating and joyful and sad and fun and scary but that is all part of life. Accepting all parts of my life into the music I make, helps me feel like my whole self.
JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
JC: – I breath. One of the things I like to do before I play to ground me is walk around outside the gig and focus on my breathing. Relaxed and steady helps me get my head and spirit into the mindset of making music and being in the moment. I don’t do any specific warmups and usually, it is just set the drums up and start my walk. It gives me the opportunity to hear my sound before I make it.
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2020: <History Gets Ahead Of The Story>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
JC: – I love that History Gets Ahead of the Story doesn’t sound like any of the other records I have made before. The project came out in a way, that while unique in my catalog of recordings, it sounds like me while honoring the source material.
The idea of honoring William Parker’s music started back in 2015, during the last run of gigs I did with Matthew Shipp and William as a trio. We were talking one night in between gigs and I was telling him what a huge influence his quartet music had been on me. He sent me some charts when he got back to NY and the ideas started to marinate. I wanted to do something with the music that meant so much to me but present it in a way that highlighted how unique the compositions are.
I had tried a few configurations of the music with local musicians and something was not quite what I was envisioning but I could not put my finger on what. Then Jeff Lederer came down to play some gigs with me in Baltimore MD, Shepherdstown WV, and Leesburg VA. We started talking about William’s music as he is the director of the Visionary Youth Orchestra which is an offshoot of the Arts for Art non-profit co-founded by William and his wife Patricia. Jeff and I talked about the charts I had and William’s quartet and I mentioned the idea of presenting the music of through an organ trio and Jeff was really excited about it. Given his musicianship and his connection to William he was a natural fit. I mentioned John Medeski and Jeff loved the idea and we got to work getting the trio together.
The sound, breath and musical communication we had as a trio is something I am so proud of in this record. There were no rehearsals and I met John the day we walked into the studio. Everyone had ideas and we were all flexible with the potential that the music presented. We just had fun playing music.
As for what I am working on today, I am trying to compose more and work up more material for future performances/recordings. I’ve been studying composition with drummer/composer Joe Chambers to help get better foundation. There are also three unreleased recordings that I am trying to get mixed/mastered to be released in 2021. It is hard right now in the midst of the pandemic to get some music made but it has given me some time to really think about what projects I want do once we can get back to playing in front of an audience.
JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?
JC: – My sound has evolved over time through working to own the sound that I produce. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to hear the end of each note that I play. How each cymbal decays into space, how the sound of each drum blends from that initial strike of the drum into the air. Drummers Matt Wilson and Andrew Cyrille really helped me to get to a place where I try to hear what my sound is before I start playing.
The biggest evolution in my playing has been being comfortable with allowing space to be space. Understanding and feeling at one with the power of what that space conveys within music. It helps the music become more of a conversation with me, the give and take.
I think this comes through in History Gets Ahead of the Story. Knowing and feeling the space to let the music breath, hearing the sound that I want to produce, while honoring the music. Part of that is choosing the right musical compatriots for this specific project, of which, Jeff Lederer and John Medeski were top of mind. I’ve been a fan of both of these great musicians for many years – they are both key members of very influential groups to my evolution as a musician. Jeff is part of the Matt Wilson Quartet and John is a member of Medeski, Martin, & Wood. I studied the music of these bands because of how much joy I absorbed from their collective sound. They both have a firm grasp on tradition but can certainly push the boundaries. They are open to the possibilities of what we all contribute which is so inspiring to me. Jeff and John really made this project come to life with their openness and incredible musical sense!
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
JC: – For me, it is all about soul in music. I want to be able to connect to a feeling through music. As a listener, I would rather listen to a musician who is putting 100% of themselves out through their music than a musician who is playing a lot of things that seem disingenuous and are intellectually driven. I’ve always had difficulty connecting to feelings in my general awareness but when it comes to music, the music allows me to be present for my emotions/feelings as both a listener and a performer. I can hear a song or piece of music and very quickly connect to what that makes me feel. It is a beautiful thing.
There is certainly room for intellect in music, things should have a high bar of musical excellence. With that said, it should be in service of the music. There is a lot of music being produced that is technical and intellectual for no other reason than to be exclusionary or ego driven, in my opinion. For me, music should be inclusive while creating an excitement within the listener and evoke the emotions intended by the pieces. The intellect comes in while creating pieces that strike a balance of excitement and inclusion between the musicians and listener.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
JC: – Yes, I am definitely ok with giving the people what they want from music. I work very hard to make a genuine offering of what I have to bring to the music for the audience – commitment to my sound and sound of the group, being engaged with the musicians I get to share the stage with, and involving the audience in our sonic explorations.
The audience for the music I have been making over the recent years as a leader is pretty self-selecting. Spontaneous composition and avant-garde can be tough for some listeners but for the people who are into it, I work to bring them a chance to lose themselves in the music.
There have been many times in my musical career where I’ve played in various musical situation where my job was to make the music feel good and I love that. I bring the same musical values to every musical situation I am in. I want music to be the most inclusive, while maintaining the highest musical commitment to what is being put out into the universe.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
JC: – Well, I’ve certainly had some interesting experiences over my years of playing music but one of the more entertaining involved Jeff Lederer. We were playing in Shepherdstown, West Virginia when a very lively (drunk) patron began screaming at us from the bar. It became quite the scene as Jeff started to play at her through his clarinet. She would yell at Jeff and he would come back with a quick-witted response through his horn. Anyone who was paying attention in the audience was laughing hysterically. The situation escalated as Jeff began chasing the woman around the bar, playing his clarinet phrased conversation at her. The scene ended as Jeff came back to the bandstand and the young woman tried to make her way back to her barstool and fell off. It is always kind of a wild scene at some of the gigs I get the guys into. Sometimes, I don’t know what they think until it is over…it is probably better that way.
Another is from playing with my trio featuring Matthew Shipp and William Parker. Our recording Alternating Current had come out earlier in the year and we were going to be performing in Washington, DC to support the release. This was one of my first gigs back to playing music after a shoulder surgery, and certainly one of the most musically and physically demanding gigs I would get to play. It was in a famous club, Bohemian Caverns, where Miles, Coltrane, Dizzy, Cecil Taylor and many other jazz luminaries had played. The place was packed, both sets sold out, and I was nervous. Getting on the bandstand with William and Matthew was like being home. It was the perfect storm of the right audience, the right musicians, and the music just flowed between us all. That gig was a few years ago now and people still come up to me when I play in Washington, DC and to tell me that they were at the Matthew/William gig. The overwhelming message is that it was an amazing musical experience for them as audience members. That will always feel incredible because I feel like we as musicians delivered an experience that resonated with the audience and created something in them that they felt they could connect to for years.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
JC: – I think getting young people into music in general is tough because they are overwhelmed by choice and the ability to find anything, at any moment makes the hunt too easy. When I first finding the music that spoke to me, I had to search it out. I’d over-hear music from an older sibling of a friend or have a live music experience or something that would get a little hook of curiosity in me. It was really up to me once that seed was planted to go to the record store and embarrassingly sing something to the people that worked there or browse. I also had to pay for the music I was listening to and that created a commitment to listen to the record and get into it.
Really, we need to give young people the opportunity to find and choose jazz that they can relate to. There is so much beautiful music in jazz, but there is also some really off-putting music out there to the uninitiated. Jazz needs to be experienced and heard in places other than an elevator by more young people to give them the chance to choose it. I love Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton and Ornette Coleman and late-era John Coltrane but that is not what hooked me to jazz. I found the very melodic stuff first, like Etta Jones and young Miles and Coleman Hawkins and Sarah Vaughn and then grew into the more outside stuff. The standards are standards because they are timeless and can evoke so much emotion. There is a lot of evidence of the ability jazz to be accessible to young people through many hip-hop artists sampling it.
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JC: – To me, the spirit and meaning of life is about breath. When my breathing is shallow and fast, I can feel out of control and I’m not listening, I quickly go into survival mode. I am not able to listen or be of much use to myself or others. Then there are the moments when I am able to feel my breath. I can hear and feel and understand more deeply everything that is around me. The music is able to move through me and be a part of me when I breath, it feels effortless. There is a feedback loop that is created when I am at my drums and breath in the music around me and breath out my contribution. It is the breath that is my spirit, and if you stop breathing for long enough, you die.
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
JC: – The one thing that I would change is having more venues and opportunities to play music for people. So many venues have closed up, large and small, that give people less chance of experiencing music in person. The feeling of energy that is transferred from the musicians to the audience and the audience back to the musicians is disappearing. As a music fan and a performer, I want more places to get that feeling that I can only get from live music. My kids have way less opportunity to see music which is difficult for me because it is such a large part of my being as a person.
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JC: – I really like the soul singer Charles Bradley. His record Strictly Reserved is incredible, it’s on all the time at my house. John Lee Hooker’s In Person is on a lot as well, with a very healthy dose of B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder are played pretty frequently. I’ve been working my way through the Miles Davis Quintet Live at the Plugged Nickel. The one real bonus of this quarantine is that I have been able to listen to a lot of music. Old and New Dreams, the self-titled ECM record and Playing, always rock my world. Shelley Manne’s at The Manne Hole is just so beautiful and swings so hard. Coleman Hawkins The Hawk Relaxes is something that I listen to a lot which was Andrew Cyrille’s first recording. It is fun to contrast that with his duo records with Anthony Braxton or Trio 3 or his most recent ECM records. Jeff Ballard’s record Time’s Tales is beautiful and my kids love it, so that is an easy sell to put on. We also listen to the singer/songwriter Andrew Bird a lot too. I’ve also been digging out records that I use to listen to a lot in high school and exposing my kids to that too!
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
JC: – I choose to bring joy, love, and connection through my music. There are less and less opportunities to connect with people in an emotional, positive way through our hyper-connected, mobile device driven culture. I want to be able to bring through all of the joy I get from being a part of music. It is about the rare opportunity we have to be a part of a musical experience that connects us, is part of something deep inside of us, and emotional. It allows us to be our truest selves without pretense or posturing, just being, breathing and experiencing together. There is a lot of joy in that and I hope in some way, my music can help convey that message.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
JC: – I think I’d like to split my time between New York City and San Francisco in the late 1960’s. There was so much changing in music and in culture at that time. The music that was new then really changed my world when I heard it and getting to experience it live would probably be more than I could handle but I’d be willing to try.
When dig through the records and bands that really inspire me, so much of that music comes from the late 1960’s. Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline or any of the Miles Davis Quintet records (ESP, Miles Smiles, Nefertiti, Plugged Nickel, Live in Tokyo), Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (especially Axis: Bold As Love), The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Blind Faith, Wayne Shorter (especially Adam’s Apple), Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters. The music seemed to be able to exist and cross boundaries, it was available to everyone who was open to taking it in.
I know there was a lot of turmoil in the world during that time but there was also a lot of positive change. There was a lot of incredible music that I have drawn a lot of inspiration from. The music was able to flourish from the emotion of the time because bands and musicians were able to express what they saw with the world, they took chances for change.
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
JC: – What do you see as the future of jazz?
JBN: – Fine, of course, jazz is my life!!!
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
JC: – I am able to harness all of my experience, my sound, and connection to the music through being open and willing to be a part of the world/music around me. A big part of it is working hard to shed expectations and allowing the music to fill me up. Allowing myself to be a vessel and conduit of joy – through my actions as a person and my work as a musician.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan