Considering how highly the late Buddy Rich ranks in the annals of jazz percussion, it's no surprise that 18 of the best-known drummers in the world agreed to pay tribute to his memory on the album "Burning for Buddy" (Atlantic 82699). Rich was an astonishing technician, blessed with incredible wrists and one of the fastest left hands in jazz, a combination that made him the invariable victor in the "drum battles" he'd stage with Gene Krupa, Max Roach or Louie Bellson. Even more impressive, though, was his ability to keep current, moving easily from swing to be-bop in the '40s, and even absorbing rock and funk elements in the '80s.
No wonder, then, that the talent assembled for the album would run the gamut from jazz stalwarts Max Roach and Ed Shaughnessy to flashy fusion players Bill Cobham and Dave Weckl, to such rock stars as Yes man Bill Bruford and Guns N' Roses' Matt Sorum. Rich, after all, was revered by drummers of every stripe.
What may come as a shock, though, is that "Burning for Buddy," which not only features the Buddy Rich Big Band on all tracks, but uses Rich's original arrangements, was actually put together by one of the rockers: Rush's Neil Peart.
Granted, Peart is widely considered one of the most talented time-keepers in popular music today, a consistent poll-winner who is widely admired by other drummers. But whereas some rock percussionists have dabbled quite successfully in jazz -- players such as Madonna sideman Omar Hakim or Journey's Steve Smith -- Peart has always stayed on the rock side of the equation.
So what prompted him to produce a Buddy Rich tribute album? Well, it all goes back to his childhood. . . .
"I grew up with big-band music," he explains over the phone. "My father was a fan, so around our house on the record player was always Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Sinatra, Tony Bennett and so on. So that was kind of into my blood before I ever touched a pair of drumsticks."
Not that this influence came out in his own playing. "As soon as I was old enough to start listening to music for myself, I immediately rejected all my father's music and turned straight to rock," he says, laughing. "And when I was playing drums, it was rock that I was interested in. Certainly, I've been a rock drummer all these nearly 30 years."
Still, Peart retained a lingering fascination with big-band music. "It was the only other style of music I could imagine being satisfied by, other than what I did in Rush," he says. "There are certain parallels, too, in the way the music is constructed. In Rush, we like to have our music well-arranged and presented, but then have freedom within that structure to express ourselves. So I saw that potential in big-band music, and kind of had an idea for a long time that I'd like to give it a go."
Peart got his chance in 1991, four years after Rich's death. Cathy Rich, the drummer's daughter, asked him to perform at a Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship Fund concert in New York.
"I was both excited and tremendously intimidated by that," he recalls. "It was a concert with six different drummers appearing with the band, so there were obvious technical and technological difficulties involved. Ultimately, that caused me to be a little disappointed with how it came out, because my expectations, as usual, were too high. I wanted it to be perfect so badly."
Rather than brood over the concert's failings, Peart "got over my disappointment and replaced that with a resolve to do it again sometime." A few years later, when space unexpectedly opened in Rush's schedule, Peart decided he'd found his "sometime" and called Cathy Rich about assembling a tribute album.
Between them, they came up with a list that spanned a wide range of talent and reputation. "We wanted some of the old-timers, like Joe Morello and Max Roach and Ed Shaughnessy, who were Buddy's peers," says Peart. "Then from the modern arena, we wanted some people from the session-musician background, from the jazz background and from the rock background.
"But all players were chosen both for their prominence and their excellence. The word we nailed down between us, Cathy and I, was 'appropriate.' These people had to be appropriate for the project -- not only to maintain the dignity of paying tribute to Buddy, but also to be able to do the job. Because the music is very technically demanding to play."
It wasn't demanding in the way Peart and some of the other rockers expected, however. In fact, drumming behind a big band in some ways proved easier than drumming with a rock group.
"Kenny Aronoff and I both found it much easier to keep time in this context," says Peart. Because the dynamics were on a different scale entirely, the rock drummers found that they didn't have to play at top volume all the time. "Because our bodies weren't being strained to stretch over here and hit everything as hard as we could, we found it much easier to maintain consistent time," he says.
"At the same time, there is a greater subtlety required in the JTC figures that you're playing. There's a free-flowing kind of breathing effect in this music, too, where you keep steady time through the music, but you're allowed to push and pull if the section of music feels better that way. So there's more detail work to be done. But the form of it is actually easier, both in the physical sense and in the time-keeping sense."
Still, there were some odd moments in the studio with the rock guys. Take, for example, the session of Matt Sorum of Guns N' Roses. "When Matt came in to record, there he was, all tattoos and nipple rings and dyed blond hair and everything," Peart recalls. "At the end of the first take, one of the horn guys said, 'Hey, who is this guy?' Matt stood up and gave the forefinger and baby finger salute with both hands, and said, 'I'm the heavy metal drummer.' "
An unlikely image, sure, but Sorum's sure command of the drum set through his selection, "Beulah Witch," puts him on par with everyone else on "Burning for Buddy." As Peart puts it: "It's like Buddy always said about drummers: 'There are no rock drummers and jazz drummers. There are just drummers.'
"It is true. Given a certain amount to time to prepare yourself, if you are a half-decent professional, you should be able to adapt to a different style -- in the same way Kenny Aronoff and I really had to work hard to dive into the deep end of a traditional swing-band arrangement. Ultimately, we could do it. It just took some work."
Of course, some drummers knew the Rich repertoire intimately, while others had only the most glancing familiarity with the music. "In a lot of those cases, people would just express what style of music they'd like to do, and Cathy would prepare a tape and send it to them with a few choices on it," says Peart. "Omar Hakim, on the other hand, was very familiar with Buddy's repertoire, so he picked what he wanted to do.
"Another interesting one was Bill Cobham. We were asking him, 'Well, what do you want to do?' And he said: 'Oh, I don't care. Whatever you want, I'll do it.' So he was perfect for me, because he took requests. As a producer, I was trying to cover what I thought were the best parts of Buddy's repertoire, the most relatable ones, and 'Milestones' was one I really wanted, and no one had done that."
One aspect of the Rich repertoire almost every musician had heard about was the drummer's temper tantrums. A few were captured on tape over the years and have been widely circulated among musicians. One legendary harangue had to do with the amount of facial hair some of his band members sported. "This is not the House of David baseball team," Rich ranted. "It's the Buddy Rich Band. No more beards!"
Peart was familiar with the canon. "I heard a lot of the tapes," he says, "but it was interesting to talk to Ed Shaughnessy, a very easygoing fellow, one of the warmest personalities I worked with the project. But as soon as anybody would mention the Buddy Rich tapes, he just got so annoyed, because he truly loves the man and his memory and thinks it's a travesty that for some people, their only idea of Buddy Rich is these tapes of him having a temper tantrum.
"As Ed pointed out, that was part of the man, but such a small part of such a great man."
THE BUDDY BEAT
To hear selections from "Burning for Buddy," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6219 after you hear the greeting.