Debut albums from jazz drummers tend to be pointedly versatile to clarify the leader’s identity beyond the trap set. So it is with 303 from Rudy Royston, which covers Mozart (“Ave Verum Corpus”) and Radiohead (“High and Dry”) and offers up nine originals that remind listeners that Royston has been equally comfortable embroidering the chamber jazz of Bill Frisell’s Big Sur quintet, backing the bashing-and-honking J.D. Allen trio, and splitting the difference with the Dave Douglas quintet.
Royston deploys a pair of bassists (Mimi Jones and Yasushi Nakamura) to allow himself more freedom to sear and soothe as the situation warrants. “Goodnight Kinyah” is a somewhat disquieting lullaby for his daughter, and “Bownze,” is hep jive filtered through the sensibility of Ornette Coleman. There are two prayers: a layered, short, complex “Prayer (for the people)” on Track 3 and a spectral, solemn “Prayer (for the earth)” as the closing track that is mysteriously cleaved in the middle by nearly two minutes of total silence.
But perhaps the best songs are the ones that wend and unspool through a variety of sections, such as “Play on Words,” “Gangs of New York” and the title track. They showcase the disc’s sharply honed septet, with pianist Sam Harris holding together the rhythm section and the front line of guitarist Nir Felder, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Nadja Noordhuis. Their exchanges can be fiery or finessed, but with Royston in the engine room, the songs have the vivid feel of being freshly minted either way.
At its best, with its unison horn lines, bop underpinnings and impeccable professionalism, 303 feels like an update on the classic Blue Note records from the mid 20th century. Royston proves he is well equipped to shift gears as a catalyst, playing with the subtle refinement of Joe Chambers and the kinetic grandeur of Art Blakey.