Drummer and composer Adam Cruz did not choose the title of his debut album lightly.
Milestone is both a professional and personal marker.
“I’ve had a vision to do something with my composing for a long time,” says Cruz. “But I’ve also felt a certain ripening needed to happen. This is a big step for me. I’ve invested a lot of time in practicing and studying, working at my relationship with the piano and developing a compositional voice. I’ve just turned 40 and I’m happy the record is coming out now. There’s a certain amount of growth and maturity that I have gone through, deepening my dedication as a drummer and composer, particularly over the last decade.”
Comprising eight original compositions, and featuring a true all star band including Miguel Zenón, alto sax; Steve Wilson, soprano sax; Chris Potter, tenor sax; Steve Cárdenas, electric guitar; Edward Simon, piano, and Ben Street, bass, Milestone, which was made possible by a grant by the Aaron Copland Recording Fund, marks a before and after in Cruz’s development as an artist.
“This wasn’t something I put together in a few months, where I wrote a few tunes, theme-solos-theme, and went to the studio,” says Cruz. “I’ve been watering the seeds over the years, sitting at the piano and going through much trial and error. We all have a tendency to rush things to try to just get them done, and for me it was important to take time to see what was there. I tried to listen for when something felt true, and original.”
What makes such an approach even more remarkable is that over the past 20 years, Cruz probably could have easily cashed in on his credits any time.
For the past decade, Cruz has been a member of pianist Danilo Perez’s trio, which also features bassist Ben Street. But, in a business known for brief, constantly changing partnerships, he has chosen to develop and maintain long-standing working relationships such as those with pianists Perez and Simon, saxophonists David Sanchez and Steve Wilson, and the Mingus Big Band. And even before that, Cruz had established his name working with artists such as trumpeters Charlie Sepúlveda and Tom Harrell, saxophonists Chris Potter, Pharaoh Sanders, and Paquito D’Rivera, guitarist Charlie Hunter and, perhaps most notably, touring and recording with pianist Chick Corea.
“That was a pivotal moment for me. I was in my late 20s and after that, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” says Cruz. “That’s when I did some self reflection and decided how much I wanted to develop my own composing and grow further as a drummer.”
In 2000, he started playing with Pérez, developing a personal and professional relationship that, Cruz says, “has been very transformative” for him. “I’ve done a lot of growing up while playing with Danilo. He’s a very special musician and his uniquely passionate spirit is infectious. Working in the trio this last decade I came to recognize that there was more being asked of me in life as a creative force, as an artist, and I’m really grateful for those challenges.
That maturation is reflected in the music in Milestone, which achieves a rare balance between smart, detailed writing and freedom. Also, while this is a date led by a drummer, the overall sound of the recording, from the design of the pieces to the ensemble playing, reflects Cruz’s approach, by which the requirements of the music supersede any other needs — or, as he succinctly puts it: “music before drums.”
“I love to groove and I love rhythm, and songs like ‘Emjé,’ and ‘The Gadfly,’ are more vamp based, more groove oriented. But also there is a certain amount of free improvisation I wanted to explore in the music, where the emphasis is not the rhythmic foundations, as in songs like ‘Crepuscular,’ or ‘Magic Ladder.’
Most of the songs on the album were written with specific players in mind, and the writing certainly brings out the best from the standout, hand-picked ensemble.
“Once I had the guys in mind, it was important for me to bring them in, into this compositional world in such a way that they would find material to be inspired by. That is the balance: the written material, the rhythms, the harmonies and melodies I’ve been hearing, while leaving the space for their personalities, their ideas and their taste. I knew with this personnel that I’d be getting the kind of depth, sensitivity and versatility from them that would enable them to shine, yet also yield to a group aesthetic at the same time”.
Born in New York City, Cruz is the son of Ray Cruz, a timbalero who played with Mongo Santamaría, Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz. “I used to sit in on his gigs when I was a little boy. Music is second nature to me,” reminisces Cruz.
His parents separated when he was four, and when his father moved out, he left him a drum kit as a gift. “My father also played drums, and he passed down his interest in the drum set to me. But of course I’m indebted that he couldn’t resist teaching me clave, cáscara and basic tumbaos on the congas as well. He also taught me to read music and exposed me to those timeless Miles Davis records of the 50’s and 60’s that I still cherish today.”
Cruz played drums throughout his youth and because he was exposed early on to jazz, Latin music and other styles, he says he never thought about styles or what kind of music he was playing. He studied at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University from 1988 to 1990. There he studied piano with Kenny Barron (“He taught me my first piano voicings,” says Cruz) and met saxophonist David Sanchez, who was already making a name for himself on the scene. David proved to be a key supporter for Cruz’s career. He then transferred to Manhattan’s New School, studying with teachers such as Kenny Washington, Joe Chambers, Louis Nash, Portinho, Maria Schneider and Victor Lewis (who recommended Cruz for the Mingus Big Band job). His time at the school was “a challenge,” says Cruz, as his career was taking off, while he was getting calls from Paquito D’Rivera, Charlie Sepulveda, the late pianist Hilton Ruiz. Still, Cruz graduated, receiving his BFA in 1993.
Cruz, who didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, is part of a generation of players who happen to be jazz musicians of Latin descent rather than Latin jazz musicians. In fact, he defines himself as a “mixed” American. “It’s an interesting thing”, he says. “ To find a way to integrate and live with all these parts of my heritage, to identify with them all, without feeling like my identity is caught exclusively in any one aspect of my musical heritage”.
“The clave language is part of my DNA,” says Cruz. Perhaps because of, not in spite of that, Milestone features few explicit references to Latin music. Two notable exceptions are “Emjé,” paced briskly by a cáscara rhythm, and “Outer Reaches,” which hints at a Puerto Rican bomba groove. Cruz is surrounded by strong and original musical personalities, most of them leaders in their own right working precisely in new fusions of jazz and indigenous Latin rhythms. However, Cruz speaks in Milestone with a very personal, original voice.
“That’s why I had to take my time honing in to what was truer and more original to myself rather than copying an idiom and just plugging in my notes,” he says. “That’s why I’ve been working on this music, off and on, for 10 years. My wife always asks me ‘How do you have so much patience?’ and I always answer the same way: “Well, it’s not right till it’s right. And I’ll know when it’s right”. Now, with Milestone, it’s right.