OFN Home

Tim DuRoche : Rag Time to No Time

Under the Marquam Bridge in Portland, Oregon, in gale force winds with I-5 traffic streaming by overhead, Tim DuRoche is thumbing an amplified kalimba, eyes riveted on the two dancers dangling from rigging between two power poles. He has his drums set up around him, but now he’s dredging a mess of tangled Mardi Gras beads and finger cymbals out of a pot of water and reaching for a giant sheet of corrugated aluminum.

It’s characteristic of the way DuRoche works that the sounds coming from the PA, a resonant lowing (think submarine contrabass) were generated not through electronic processing, but picked up with a homemade contact mic he attached to the bottom of a stainless steel mixing bowl full of water—we’re hearing him bow the edge of a small gong dipped halfway into the bowl.

This is DuRoche at his furthest “out”, creating a solo improvised score for dance on the banks of the Willamette River in November.

Cadence calls him “one of Portland’s most interesting players”. He’s played with Jack Wright, Lisle Ellis, Paul Plimley (Canada), Frank Gratkowski (Germany), and Torsten Muller (Canada), and you’ve never heard his name. Joe Foster, writing in Bagatellen, calls DuRoche one of Portland’s “homegrown heroes”, the kind of players who Bagatellen’s Derek Taylor identifies as “comparatively unknown outside their own locales”; under-recorded, but who play a pivotal role in their communities (he often helps traveling players find venues) and are the go-to’s for visiting musicians.

A triple threat, DuRoche plays, writes about the music, and is a strong voice for improvised music and jazz in the larger cultural community, having served on non-profit boards, panels, and awards committees in both Minneapolis and Portland as well as curating performances for the Walker Art Center.  Currently DuRoche is the jazz critic for the Willamette Week and writes about jazz and related music for The Oregonian. His “Occasional Jazz Conjectures” appear regularly on JerryJazzMusician.com.

He’s played at festivals in Big Sur, Portland, Olympia, San Francisco, Seattle, and plays regularly up and down the coast as well as playing gigs back in his native Minneapolis, but has few recordings available, most recently Humph with Seattle’s Adam Diller and Portland-based pianist Doug Hanning, a set of deconstructed Monk tunes.

DuRoche identifies as a jazz drummer. He’s adamant about drawing the line starting at Dixieland through jazz to the furthest reaches of the improvisorial avant-garde. To DuRoche, it’s all part of the same tradition.  When asked, he’ll quote the title of a Beaver Harris album and tell you he plays “rag time to no time”. He came up in Minneapolis the way jazz drummers have always come up, sitting in, performing with his elders.  Class was in session when he sat in on a Jimmy Bowman gig or when Jack McDuff in turn sat in on a gig with DuRoche, calling him “Drumsky”, or spending years playing just snare and hi hat with Cornbread Harris.  He played blues, shuffles, R&B, swing, and wedding gigs with accordian players.

Playing with remnants of jazz past and revolutionaries of jazz future let DuRoche develop a wide compass of the sounds, phrases, rhythms, and textures he could throw into his improvising stew. He was lucky to develop a deep connection with AACM composer and pianist Carei Thomas, with whom he connected musically as well as conceptually/intellectually. But what makes DuRoche so interesting is that he's absorbed and assimilated as much Morton Feldman as Max Roach.

A lyrical and innovative player, DuRoche’s free playing brings to mind Barry Altschul with Paul Bley on Closer or Ramblin’. His work is as exciting visually as sonically—witness the semaphore dance of his trademark solos with rags instead of sticks or brushes. And while his drum kit is often augmented with any number of objects, DuRoche can do more with a set of brushes and a snare than most drummers can do with a full arsenal.

Equal parts listener and instigator, DuRoche can lay back and provide exquisite textured ground one moment, angular prodding and seething attack the next, moving an improvised piece in unexpected directions. In DuRoche’s playing, there is a subtlety that is not simplistic lowercase waiting-for-the-bus quietude, but part of a thoughtful and conceptual approach to collaborative soundmaking. He always keeps it, as bassist Andre St. James says, “on simmer”. Think Elvin Jones, but on Johnny Hartman’s “I Just Dropped By to Say Hello”. DuRoche talks about the “sound of surprise”, insisting on the necessity of risk-taking in music and refusing the obvious or easy way.

DuRoche constructs sound through metaphor and is extraordinarily sensitive, able to listen with his eyes to the movement of a dancer as deftly as he responds to the playing of other musicians. This conceptual thinking about soundmaking is why he’s a favorite collaborative partner of dancers, poets, and artists.

In Seattle’s Stranger, Christopher DeLaurenti notes that DuRoche “treated his drum kit (augmented with lots of little toys and objects) as a playful laboratory”.  A relentless experimenter, DuRoche hears sounds in his head that he then tries to recreate with objects, be they glockenspiel or match-head, soup pot or chopstick, or schoolbell. And if the sound isn’t available through the meeting of traditional objects, he improvises: using the hollow stage as a bass drum at the 2004 Big Sur Experimental Music Festival or playing the seat of a folding steel chair for a Performanceworks Northwest dance performance.

Because of his restless ears, what he describes as his “sonic palette” has undergone a number of changes in recent years. He has moved away from toys—windups to bike horns—toward a metallic palette of cymbals, gongs, stainless steel bowls, pan lids, and galvanized sheet metal.  His palette now often incorporates a mic’d vessel of water. And he’s only just begun to experiment with the contact microphones he’s been soldering together in his basement.

DuRoche has a couple of recordings awaiting release.  The most exciting was recorded at Seattle’s late, great Polestar Gallery with San Francisco bassist Damon Smith and East Bay pianist Scott Looney, with whom he plays frequently. The other is with Frank Gratkowski and Seattle pianist Gust Burns. He’s currently developing a project called the Barnett Newman Select with other young Portland players who can similarly make it from the realm of standards to no-net and back.

Lisa Radon is a freelance arts and culture writer located in Portland. Her work has appeared in Flaunt magazine, Candy, Portland’s local weekly and non-daily papers, as well as on numerous webzines. This is her first contribution to One Final Note.