Burning For Buddy: Neil Peart’s Jazz Pilgrimage
By the middle of May, the drummers were all secured, after agreeing to play for minimum scale. In addition to Smith, Bissonette, Gadd, Phillips, Bruford, Sorum and Aronoff, the final line-up featured Dave Weckl, Steve Smith, Manu Katche, Mino Cinelu, Billy Cobham, Max Roach, Rod Morgenstein, Omar Hakim. Ed Shaughnessy, Joe Morello and Steve Ferrone. With the players cast, Peart put on his producer's hat and took up temporary residence at the Power Station recording studio in New York City. He soon discovered that recording songs is only a small, albeit, significant part of a producer’s duties. Somehow baby-sitting and diplomacy also came into play. “I tried to say out of the technical side and logistical side of things, and just stay back and listen to the music,” he says. “You might think I’d be getting all these free drum lessons from these guys and watching every move they make, but I couldn’t, because I was trying to produce the music. So I had to sit in a place where I couldn’t see the drummer, close my eyes, and just listen to the song. I tried not to listen to the drummer except as part of the band, as someone who was keeping the time together. People would say later, ’Oh, did you see so-and-so play?’ And I would have to say, ’Well no, I didn’t. I was busy.’
“The other side of it was that I had to be the motivator and say, ’Okay guys, It’s time to work. Let’s do it! Can we go straight into another take or do the trumpet players need a break? Okay come and listen to it and then we’ll do another one.’ I would just keep this moving like that. These were things I’ve learned from producers that we’ve worked with. The guys that tried to make us comfortable didn’t worry about the EQ on the snare drum or the increments of tempo or tuning. It’s best to leave that to the musicians and the engineer. I expect each of the musicians to basically produce themselves. ’If you make a mistake, tell me. If there’s something that you can’t live with, tell me, and we’ll either fix it or redo it, whatever it takes.’ I couldn’t possibly listen to 16 individual parts and critique them on that level.”
Although Peart had a relatively large budget for a contemporary big band recording, the disarmingly ambitious project had the potential to turn into a bottomless money pit if it wasn’t strictly scheduled and coordinated. Since each drummer wanted to use his own kit, the production team had to set-up, mike and get sounds for as many as two new drum sets each day, in addition to laying down tracks. Although the members of the Buddy Rich Big Band already knew the charts backwards and forwards, the drummers came to the sessions without the benefit of a live rehearsal. Most of them ran through the song once with the band, and then began going for takes. Peart jokes, “We had a four-drum and four-take maximum.”
Peart says that the schedule became so demanding that his head would swim as he walked back to his hotel from the studio in the wee hours of the morning. “I had to focus so intensely on each song and each drummer as we did them, that I was working completely in the moment,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to remember what we had done that day. Which drummer was in this morning? What songs did we record? What did it sound like? I knew that the decisions that were made at the time must’ve been good. On the other side of that, the following morning, I’d be so excited walking into the studio. What’s going to happen today? What are we going to do? The whole band was like that. It was just so exciting because it was immediate. Everything was happening. We were producing finished recordings that were ready to mix by the end of one day. And I love immediate gratification. I’m not very patient. So this kind of recording was perfect for me.”
Unlike most record producers, Peart found himself in the hot seat on the other side of the control room window, kicking the horn section of the song “Cotton Tail” like many of the drummers featured on Burning For Buddy, Peart scaled-down the massive kit that he normally uses with Rush to a simple four-piece. Though he uses thicker heads with Rush, Peart fitted his drums with coated Remo Ambassadors on the session for authenticity’s sake, and also played Zildjian A Custom cymbals, because he says, “They speak like horns do.” As far as his technique, Peart dug back into his early training and dusted off his traditional left-hand-grip. He also learned from talking with some of the other drummers on the session about the standard jazz practice of feathering soft quarter-notes on the bass drum. “I didn’t know that you were allowed to keep the bass drum going all the time, because you don’t hear it,” he admits. “And sure enough that helped me enormously to nail the time down and feel more settled and more confident.”
One might imagine that making the transition from a progressive rock power trio to a classic big band would present groove and feel problems for Peart. Yet, he insists that taking the stylistic leap wasn’t all that tough to manage. “Ironically, in some ways it’s actually easier to push a big band,” he says. “Of course, you’re keeping time the best you can, and pushing and driving the band. But when it comes to difficult transitions or parts where you’re hitting a lot of shots, and you want to make sure the time is steady, all you have to do is listen to the rest of the band. Whereas in a rock band, everything of course is much louder, especially playing live. Since you’re not able to hear each other very well, you’re much more dependent on yourself. But in a big band, with all those guys playing, you really have so much more opportunity to listen to the other players. For instance, if the piano player is keeping a comping pattern going behind a solo, lock in with the piano and bass. And if the horns are playing a kind of syncopated part, use them. They’re all keeping time, and you can always hear 15 guys tapping their feet in the pauses. Those are locked into the tempo. So you learn to open your ears more.
“Another thing I discovered was how much easier it is to keep time when you’re playing softly. Your body isn’t moving all over the kit and upsetting your balance, and you’re not pounding away at the limits of your physical ability. If you’re just sitting there kind of keeping time quietly, it’s much easier to hold tempo than it is when you play loudly. Some of the other rock drummers on the session also corroborated that.”
It’s been a couple of years since Peart began playing Buddy Rich music, and through the process, his jazz chops are in better shape than they’ve ever been in. He explains how that evolution took its course. “When I first started working on this music, I stayed pretty carefully to what Buddy played, because it was unfamiliar water to me stylistically. Obviously, my safest guide was Buddy, so in a lot of cases I would learn his parts and even his breaks just for the challenge of that. To learn Buddy Rich’s breaks was an interesting exercise for me. But now again, having had some experience and some satisfaction and confidence out of it, I would approach it more freely now. Even by the time I recorded “Cotton Tail” I’d rehearsed it and played it enough times with the band that I started to get freer at that point, and I know that if I did a bit more playing it would make me even freer yet. I feel safer now. I don’t mind jumping off.”
After all the drummers had laid down their tracks, Peart had 39 completed songs on tape ⎯ considerably more than he needed for the single album he had originally envisioned. For that reason, Atlantic records decided to produce three separate CD’s with release dates staggered several months apart, and then compile the three albums into a single boxed set at some point in the future.
In the final analysis, the Burning For Buddy sessions were not so much about the all-star cast of drummers who appear on the album, but about Buddy Rich, and the musical legacy that he left behind. “Buddy was at the forefront of drumming for 50 years,” Peart says, “and he changed through all that time. He didn’t just have a style and stick to it, he went through many changes. He never got into that nostalgia part of big band music. He didn’t want old gray-haired Tommy Dorsey fans coming to see him, he wanted to play for young people. So there was always an effort to keep the material contemporary. During the ’60s and ’70s he did songs from the Doors and medleys from big Broadway shows. He wouldn’t compromise his musical standards or his preferred style. I think he kept big band music alive and vital right up until his death.
“Gene Krupa once said that Buddy was outside of it. There were all the drummers in the world, and then there was Buddy, you know, up there on top. And I truly did always think of him that way. I just always kept him to a fault as a drummer. I was influenced by all the rock drummers and more accessible jazz-fusion players. But Buddy seemed like the unattainable pinnacle to me. And in a strange kind of way, too, it kept me away from the music for a long time. I found his sheer ability intimidating.”