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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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.”