Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
This is Gospel: Buddy Rich was the greatest drummer who ever lived. Unlike the eternal arguments in baseball, Rich’s royal status was decided long ago—perhaps as far back as 1919, when the 2-year-old was wowing vaudeville audiences as “Traps, the Drum Wonder.”
Since his death in 1987, no one has dared claim the crown. The field is filled with noble pretenders—many included on Burning for Buddy: A Tribute to the Music of Buddy Rich, which was produced by Rush’s skin pounder, Neil Peart. Clearly a labor of love, the crème de la drum collective is certainly not honoring Rich because of his sweet disposition. He was by all accounts a tyrant, renowned for firing players onstage, in the middle of a set. Entire bands were dismissed that way. An infamous bootleg tape captured several of his apoplectic outbursts—humiliating sidemen for daring to, among other crimes, grow a beard.
But behind a drum kit, the man had godlike powers. He could propel a band with only a pair of high-hat cymbals. His beat was so precise that each time his stick dropped to the drumhead, the note was razor-sharp and true—even at heart-fibrillating tempos.
The 18 tracks on this disc (more volumes are promised) find drummers as diverse as Guns N’ Roses’ Matt Sorum, fusion master Bill Cobham, and John Mellencamp follower Kenny Aronoff taking turns “sitting in” with reunited members of the Buddy Rich Big Band in Rich’s favored lineup of four trumpets, three trombones, five saxes, piano, and bass.
It’s a blaring, bombastic, up tempo affair with the drums prominent in the mix. The effect is sometimes like that of a child posing in daddy’s hat—cute, but no way they’re getting his car keys. Which is not to say the album doesn’t have its moments. It just never really sounds like the Buddy Rich Big Band.
That’s not surprising, as most of these guys grew up in the rock era. The subtle stick manipulations required by the original charts are often lost by rockers trained to thwack. No matter how technically proficient, and this assemblage is nothing if not proficient, their ingrained inclination is to accent the backbeat—hard. Still, there are some genuinely satisfying cuts.
For instance, Aronoff’s “Straight No Chaser” races along with authentic bravado. Aronoff is a schooled percussionist and gets to showcase chops hidden while he was busy R-O-C-K-ing in the U.S.A. Likewise, former Journey-man Steve Smith is an educated whacker who acquits himself nicely on “Nutville.” Peart turns in a decent performance on Ellington’s “Cotton Tail.”
Another skillful swinger is ex- Winger Rod Morgenstein. He ably takes on the 1967 boogie workout, “Machine.” His problem is that the jittery walking bass line so essential to this tune is played on an electric bass. Also missing is the trill from the horns.
It is interesting that the majority of the songs chosen come from Rich’s mid-to-late-’70s work—when he was pushing 60 and playing a grueling series of one-nighters at small clubs, colleges, and even rural high schools. Perhaps these musicians saw him in their gymnasiums.
(I recall a 1970 Rich performance at McLean’s Langley High that remains one of the most jaw-dropping displays of speed and power I’ve ever witnessed. It turns out that Rich was wearing a back brace that night. It was his first gig after undergoing disc surgery. Rich played in constant pain for years, and defied doctor’s orders to slow down after both of his heart attacks.)
Rich might have become as faded a figure as Benny Goodman, but in early 1966—at the height of the British Invasion—he had the audacity to form a big horn band. While he didn’t reinvent the genre, he did infuse it with so much angry energy that even the kids, with their long hair and their loud guitars, took notice.
The band’s breakthrough came with the 1968 album Mercy Mercy, recorded live at Caesar’s Palace (such a cool phrase). The band’s version of the Joe Zawinul-penned title tune (perhaps more familiar to you younguns as a Buckinghams song) was Rich’s nod to rock ‘n’ roll—though undoubtedly a sneering nod, a sort of “Yeah, and I can play this crap with my eyes shut” attitude. Whatever, it worked. The chart by ex-Woody Herman trombonist Phil Wilson combined howling jazz horns with a hard, choppy beat.
On Burning, the job of tackling it falls to Dave Weckl, who was last heard backing Sting (interestingly, four drummers on this record—Weckl, Manu Katché, Omar Hakim, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith—are alums of various Sting bands). Weckl brings the song solidly back into the rock arena. His fills are meticulous, but his crashing snare-drum backbeat impedes the swing. Likewise, studio legend Steve Gadd, known for his impossibly polyrhythmic beats, weighs down the sinuous “Love for Sale” with his heavy funk licks.
“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” is a perfect example of Rich’s unique style. He fairly dances atop the drumheads, his left hand in constant motion on the snare, playing barely perceptible ghost-notes interspersed with crackling, sharp accents—all the while managing to keep a solid beat churning. He could percolate a dozen notes throughout a single measure without overplaying.
Since Rich went through musicians like Kleenex—plucking them straight from music colleges like Berklee and North Texas State—his band was distinctive largely by his presence. When Ed Shaughnessy wields the sticks here on an original, “Shawnee,” the group sounds like the Tonight Show band he used to beat for. One of Rich’s longest-lasting sidemen was saxophonist Steve Marcus, who stuck with the band from 1975 to the end—when he wasn’t being fired. As with Rich, he blasts energetic solos on most of the cuts.
Two of the legitimate jazzmen here—Dave Brubeck sidekick Joe Morello, and Max Roach—each contribute originals, apparently having decided they’ve suffered enough negative comparisons over the years. Roach offers two meandering excerpts from his piece, “The Drum Also Waltzes,” that total less than two minutes. Perhaps he’s still miffed about their 1959 encounter, Rich vs. Roach, wherein Buddy mopped the floor with the bopster.
Yes-man Bill Bruford offers an electronic original that seems to miss the point of this disc. Most egregious is Steve Ferrone, who arrogantly dusts off his Average White Band hit, “Pick Up the Pieces,” a tune Rich never dealt with. The big band arrangement only proves that too many horns spoil the funk. Thanks for dropping by, Steve.
Rich’s greatness lay in the fact that, besides having enormous technique—lightning speed, precise control, and uncanny independence—he could swing a band like few others. From Sinatra to Charlie Parker, everyone wanted him sitting in the drum seat. He was also a master with ballads and the art of brushes—a fact usually overlooked in all the bombastic solos for which he is most remembered. This heartfelt rat-a-tat-tribute by 18 of the best beaters working is proof of both Rich’s exalted standing among his peers and the fact that, even today, he has no peers.