Neil Peart’s Jazz Pilgrimage

Rush’s Drummer assembles and all-star cast to record a tribute album to the memory of Buddy Rich

Rush does Rich? It’s true. Kind of. The seed was planted when Rush drummer Neil Peart received a rather unusual invitation in 1991 from Cathy Rich, the daughter of the late Buddy Rich – you know, the greatest drummer who has ever lived. It turned out that Rich was organizing a tribute concert in the memory of her father featuring the Buddy Rich Big Band and a number of respected drummers, and she wanted Peart to be one of them. On the surface it might have seemed like an unnatural pairing, Buddy’s swinging big band charts and Peart’s cerebral progressive-rock style – and in fact, it was.

“I was terrified by the prospect,” Peart now admits, “so naturally I had to do it.” After trading phone calls and packages stuffed with sheet music and cassettes back-and-forth between Peart and Rich, the drummer chose three tunes to perform at the concert and began to bone up on his big band chops. Finally on the eve of the show, Peart arrived at the Ritz theater in New York City to practice and sound check with the band. Once there, he found himself sharing the hall with some of the most celebrated drummers of the ’90s. Gregg Bissonette, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Omar Hakim, Will Calhoun, and Steve Smith – enough collected percussive talent to make even the most seasoned veteran clammy under the collar.

“After a lot of preparation and anxiety – I prepared so thoroughly, and worked so hard on rehearsing the music and the style – the logistics of producing a show with six different drummers and drum sets made rehearsals and sound checks difficult,” he says. “During the performance I could barely hear the rest of the band, and I couldn’t really hear the horns at all. So I was very disappointed on the night afterwards because it hadn’t been as perfect as I wanted it to be.”

Rather than shelving his big band aspirations, though, Peart became even more determined to swing like a genuine hep cat. “By the time I was driving home, I was thinking, ’Well the only thing to do is try again, and make it better,’” he says. “And I began looking for another chance to play big band music and kind of redeem myself in my own mind. I just wanted it to be great.” It occurred to Peart that someone should produce a Buddy Rich tribute album featuring a number of well-known drummers, primarily so that he could play on it. “Then I realized that ’someone’ would have to be me,” Peart says laughing.

He pitched the idea to Cathy Rich, who pledged her support, and then contacted folks at Atlantic records to see if they were interested in taking on the project. At first at least, Atlantic was somewhat cool to the idea. “The budget I needed had to be large enough to bring in all these people over two weeks and have 20 different drummers and drum sets coming in and out of the studio,” he explains. “It was way beyond the normal jazz budget.”

Fortunately, though, Peart was able to mobilize Rush’s management infrastructure to help shepherd the project along. His manager, Ray Daniels negotiated with the record company. Liam Birt, Rush’s tour manager looked into travel and lodging accommodations. Peart’s drum tech interfaced with the other drum techs for the various drummers who were enlisted. Even the art director who designs Rush album covers began to generate graphics – not to mention the legwork provided by Cathy Rich and her husband Steve Arnold, who worked directly with the musicians.

Amazingly, Peart had to make all the arrangements while on the road with Rush. “That added an extra special challenge,” he says. “But that’s the only way anything can happen in this world, really. You have to plan one thing while you’re doing another.” Once the wheels were in motion, Peart began to concentrate on sharpening his jazz technique. “I spent about a month just working on this style of music. We were still finishing off the Counterparts tour, and I’d be in the tuning room before the show, practicing. I worked with brushes a lot in the early part of the tour, just to explore something new. And for the last month, I just concentrated on this music, working on my rudimental stuff and playing softly.”

Once the tour concluded, Peart threw himself into his project, working directly with Cathy Rich to organize the line-up of drummers who would appear on the album, now titled Burning for Buddy. It proved to be more difficult than one might imagine. “We used a lot of drummers who had had been on the scholarship shows in the past,” Peart says, “because, of course, they had a proven record that they could play the music well. And that was certainly a criteria. The phrase I used was that the musicians had to be appropriate for the project in every sense. None of us could fill Buddy’s shoes, obviously, but each drummer had to live up to the music at least, that level of complexity and sophistication.

“Some of them were naturally going to be good at it, like Smitty Smith or Gregg Bissonette, or people who do everything well, like Steve Gadd or Simon Phillips. Bill Bruford was another one that hadn’t done it before, but I thought he would be great. Matt Sorum was Cathy’s idea – he has a good background in music. I knew Kenny Aronoff’s experience was deep enough so that he’d be able to do it.

“There were drummers who were keen to be on the album, but just weren’t able to. Louie Bellson, for one, should have been on there, but he was in Europe at the time we were recording. Dennis Chambers and Vinnie Colaiuta had committed to do it, but they both happened to be in Europe at the time, and we only had those two weeks to record. Phil Collins was another guy that I really wanted to have, but he was in the middle of a tour between Houston and Mexico City at the time, so it was just not realistic for him to consider it – but he did respond very nicely. It was unfortunate that we couldn’t have them, because they really belonged there. As is happened we ended up with 20 great drummers. But we could certainly have had more.”

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