Improvisation in jazz is a holy place. It can move you, lift you, and change you. For drummer Ron Wiltrout, it’s a dialogue. A dialogue that is far more interesting when it pushes boundaries—even when pushing those boundaries feels uncomfortable.
For someone who juggles playing in 15 bands and recently recorded an album of avant garde chamber music in New York (Ted Hearne’s The Source), Wiltrout is remarkably composed, humble, and eloquent, and he offered up some serious insight into his thoughts on music over a beer at Edmund’s Oast.
“My mentality is always just to connect people and make music in a unique and intriguing way.” His agenda is straightforward. “I want to be wholly unto myself, never dismissing my influences, but always trying to make things in a way that only I can because the people that I love, the people that moved me to really just fall down for music, did exactly that.”
And he equates music with conversation, saying, “My favorite kinds of conversations are the ones where people are interacting, where there is a unique perspective that is understood and shared. Still surprising, still novel and engaging, but you take sharp turns and go different places and nobody feels like something was left out. Because it’s just as much about the search as whether or not you found out the answers to your questions.”
The kind of jazz that resonates the most with Ron?
“The kind that accepts that people like me who grew up listening Led Zeppelin and Pearl Jam can also play jazz and that allows for the fact that I’m not going to sound like Max Roach. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to start playing a jazz standard like a rock cover but it allows for those textural possibilities to come out.”
He mind melds with fellow Charleston Jazz Orchestra players Robert Lewis and Gerald Gregory. “We have a trio and do pretty straight-ahead jazz but it can also be a lot of different things. We’ve played together for years and we can kind of read each other in a lot of ways. We don’t have to converse that much, we just start playing music and it ends up being something that feels really powerful—technically challenging, conceptually demanding, but it is always like ‘whoa I’m excited and I want to jump in and do it.’ That doesn’t mean that they know harmony, which they do, or they know technical wizardry, which they do, and it doesn’t mean that they can play tempos that I can, which they can, it means that all that comes together in a way that whenever we start playing all that disappears because it doesn’t matter.”
Living in this spectacularly beautiful city with all the modern comforts that anesthetize us compels Wiltrout to seek out art and music that really pushes the envelope, like Spoleto shows and inventive comedy that plays with form.
“When I can find something in this town that makes me like…’ohhhhhh this is uncomfortable,’ I want to embrace it because I want to learn and grow. Whenever I go to New York, I seek out those things too. I saw a show that just happened at The Kitchen. There is an ex-Charleston guy, Philip White, who makes the most incredible avant garde noise and just does beautiful things with it. He was sound designing this show where a woman was lying on the stage after a bunch of monologues and she turns on a tape recorder of screaming and it went on for 5 ½ minutes…but I was swimming in it…swimming in discomfort, trying to understand what it was doing to me so that I could learn from that moment. I feel like those are the experiences where we really find ourselves.”
“We can all just do the same things for the rest of our lives and that’s fine. I don’t want to judge that, but that’s not what I want to do. I want to be challenged. I want to challenge people. I don’t want to necessarily make people feel uncomfortable but I don’t mind if I do sometimes.”
Find out more about Wiltrout’s projects and gigs here.
Words by: Dee Dee Arthur
Photo by: Kazu Murakami