Sunday, November 8, 2015

Steve Smith - 1999 "Buddy's Buddies"

When thinking of drummer Buddy Rich, the first thing that comes to mind is a screaming big band propelled by the master. However, Rich also recorded in small group settings, and it's this facet of the drum legend's musical personality that Steve Smith and his friends explore on this CD. Teaming up with four alumni of the Buddy Rich band from the 1970s and '80s, Smith takes on the difficult task of filling Rich's drum chair for this impressive set. It's great to hear saxophonist Steve Marcus cooking again. He and alto saxophonist Andy Fusco provide the perfect frontline, blending seamlessly on the ensemble passages, then taking off in their distinctive solo styles. Marcus gets out there on his soprano and tenor while Fusco locks in closer, only to rise on "Airegin." Pianist Lee Musiker shows talent that deserves wider recognition, providing a fat chordal underpinning one moment and soaring through an inventive solo the next. Bassist Anthony Jackson brings impressive credentials to the gig and delivers a solid bottom throughout. Steve Smith shines in each setting, never aping Rich directly, yet still conjuring images of Rich (and the great Billy Cobham as well) with his facile, polyrhythmic yet swinging approach. His brushwork will surprise those who think of Smith only as a high-energy rock and fusion drummer. The choice of material is good, with a number of mostly familiar pieces mingled among a couple of lesser-known chestnuts. This was one of the best small group jazz recordings of 1999, overlooked perhaps as a mere "tribute" recording. This album actually offers a smoking set of great music by a quintet that sounds like they've been playing together for years.

Steve Smith and Buddy's Buddies is hardly the first tribute to the legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich, but it is perhaps the first to bring to life the small-group aspect of Rich's enormous legacy. While previous recorded tips of the hat to Rich have focused on his influential big-band work, Buddy's Buddies gathers some of Rich's former sidemen with superstar drummer Steve Smith for a rewarding shot of small-group jazz as intense as Rich's own work in this context. Since this is a tribute to a drummer, much of the focus here is on Smith, and given his cultlike status in musician circles (earned through his varied playing with everyone from Journey to his own jazz-fusion band Vital Information), it's no surprise that he doesn't disappoint--bursting out of the gate on "Nutville" with some ridiculously complex drum fills and going into hyerdrive on the super-uptempo "Airegin" for some telepathic interplay with saxophonists Steve Marcus and Andy Fusco. But it's the rest of the band that makes this far more than a drum clinic or otherwise empty nostalgia recording. Marcus's lyrical soprano solo lights up a beautifully arranged version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," and the whole band swings with effortless ease on "New Blues," transforming what could have been a mere tribute album into a no-holds-barred session that stands just fine on its own--just the way Rich undoubtedly would have wanted it. 

Legendary drummer Buddy Rich is usually associated with soaring Big Bands, but he also made several recordings with small ensembles, using the members of his band to play in a much more intimate setting. This album is a tribute to these small ensemble recordings, initiated by ex-Buddy Rich alumni Steve Marcus and Andy Fusco (both sax players). They joined forces with two other alumni, who also played with Rich on his small group recordings: pianist Lee Musiker and the extraordinary bassist Anthony Jackson. To drive the quintet and fulfill the place of their legendary drummer / leader they invited one of the most respected and musical US drummers Steve Smith. Smith is not only a fantastic player, but also one of the most versatile musicians around. His illustrious career spans back to the 1970 when he played with the Rock group Journey during their hay days and with the French violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty and his Fusion group. Later on he played in several jazz small groups, Big Bands and a myriad of Fusion ensembles (including Steps Ahead), always being one of the most solid and sought after drummers around. Since the early 1980s Smith also leads his own Fusion group Vital Information, recording several albums over the years. It’s no wonder therefore that Smith is up to the challenge set up by this album, leading the quintet with grace and elegance. The music includes a selection of standards mostly associated with Buddy Rich ensembles. The level of musicianship is outstanding, with Smith and Jackson providing rock-solid rhythm foundation for the other musicians to solo. Although the music is well framed within the swing genre, it is fascinating and beautifully played. This album deserves to be considered as one of the best jazz recordings of the 1990s. Definitely a must for all people who cherish the memory of Buddy Rich and hard swinging well played jazz.

Although there have been many tributes to the late Buddy Rich, few have truly captured the explosive energy of the master drummer. Steve Smith, one of the most gifted all-around drummers in the world, admirably accepts the challenge presented by Rich's repertoire. He is joined by various past members of Rich's band, including Anthony Jackson, Lee Musiker, and Steve Marcus in an intimate small group, a setting in which Rich was a master. The result is a powerful performance that allows Smith to reveal his stunning technique and master musicianship while paying tribute to the greatest of them all.

The blistering opener, "Nutville" is a raucous Latin/swing romp that sets up jaw-dropping solo spots by Marcus, Musiker, and Smith, the last of whom plays a smoking cadenza. Other Rich cuts include the Lennon/McCartney masterpiece "Norwegian Wood," here taken as a loping waltz; a steaming Afro-Cuban/swing reading of "Airegin"; and an intricate arrangement of Berstein's "Cool." Throughout, Smith effectively drives and guides the music with his trademark power and precision, producing one remarkable performance after another. The closing barnburner, "Ya Gotta Try," a favorite among Rich fans, is a fitting end to one of the most successful tributes to Rich's spirit yet.

Track Listings

  1. Nutville
  2. Norwegian Wood
  3. New Blues
  4. Airegin
  5. How Do You Keep The Music Playing?
  6. You Stepped Out Of A Dream
  7. Moments Notice
  8. Cool
  9. Ya Gotta Try
  10. Norwegian Wood


Steve Smith (drums);
Steve Marcus (soprano & tenor saxophones);
Andy Fusco (alto saxophone);
Lee Musiker (piano);
Anthony Jackson (bass). 



  2. thanks, here's steve smith vital information w/ tom coster jazz alley seattle wa 3.9.11..little chatter in there..