Studio stuff: the Burning for Buddy sessions.
Posted by Bill: Saturday January 10th 2009
I have enormous respect for studio, or ‘session’ drummers, mostly because it’s what I don’t do very well, if at all. The way the cards fell for me, I just ended up in groups, and the studio cats carved up the session work between them. In my day it was sort of a career choice – if you went out on the road a lot, you lost any toe-hold you had in the studios. Now there is not so much studio work around anyway, but live drummers still seem to be much in demand. The ability to read and play anything in the appropriate style, and remain calm in the face of mercurial producers who don’t know what they want, remains one of the highest skills any drummer can aim for. I did a little of this, and it can be stressful. This excerpt from the upcoming book gives you a flavour of what it’s like doing high-profile session work. Happy New Year!
An altogether grander 1994 project centred on Neil Peart, the charming and successful drummer with Canadian rockers Rush, who had taken it upon himself to make a series of recordings of Buddy Rich’s music. Buddy had passed away in 1987, but The Buddy Rich Orchestra was still very much a working organism, featuring several of the musicians who were in the band when their leader was alive, most notably tenor saxophonist Steve Marcus. The idea was for an A-list of the most celebrated drummers of the day to do a couple of tunes each from the standard Rich Orchestra repertoire. The resulting CDs were to be called Burning For Buddy, and time was duly booked at the Power Station recording studio in Manhattan.
For reasons best known to himself, Neil thought I’d be suitable for this project and got in touch to explain the plan. He suggested a couple of tunes, and I, with what must have seemed like arrogance but in fact was that old insecurity, said fine, but how about one of his and one of mine? Neil asked for a demo of my proposed tune, which was duly approved, and I went off to see English trumpeter and arranger Chris Batchelor to have the composition transcribed.
The night before the sessions passes in the by-now increasingly common fog of red wine, jetlag, and Temazepam, and I struggle to my feet, exhausted, at about seven the next morning to the mood-music of Manhattan traffic. When I arrive at the Power Station, it is like a dentist’s waiting room, with half a dozen of the best drummers in the world sitting around leafing through magazines and, on a variable scale, dealing with their demons. Steve Gadd and Steve Ferrone are up next, Kenny Aronoff and Simon Phillips have completed, and I will be next up after Ferrone.
Each musician has been allotted two hours to move his drums in, set-up and soundcheck, rehearse each tune once, and then record them. To the layman this might seem like a comfortable schedule – to the crack studio musicians like Gadd and Ferrone it might appear a little tight. But it seems to me, with my leisurely art-rock background in which it took two hours to get the sandwich order straight, let alone move any instruments into a studio, that I have a better chance of getting a camel through the eye of a needle than I have of completing this on time.
Ferrone comes out of the dentist’s office with a look of acute relief. The crew throw his drums more or less unceremoniously out of the room and mine into the place that his had previously occupied. The mics are repositioned, and thanks largely to a good studio, a great drumset, and an exceptional recording engineer, we spend no time at all making sure the drum sound is up to scratch. In front of me is a world-famous big-band stuffed with excellent jazz musicians. Behind me is a control-room with Peart producing. The place is jammed with players peering down at the proceedings, probably just interested to hear the only original composition on the album, but who are, I am convinced, secretly hoping the British guy will never get off the runway.
We start with my tune ‘Lingo’. I hand out the music to the 16 players. The high trumpet does what I’m told the high trumpet always does: he speed-reads through his chart to see if there are enough high notes to justify his ride in on the subway. These are the high-wire artists of the jazz orchestra and they must be allowed to display their skills, or they may become petulant. There is a questioning frown on the bass player’s face, but he doesn’t say anything, so I pretend I haven’t noticed. We run it down once, and I’m cleared for take off.
I count the tune in and we lurch down the runway, but 30 seconds in there is a malfunction in the trumpets and trombones, and we have to abort. The written music is intricate and involves some complex rhythmic interplay between the two sections. It’s playable as is, but without serious practice it’s not going to sound good. The question comes to me: do I want it as is, or do I want to cut? I want to cut, naturally – anything to make it sound good – but I’m uncertain exactly what, where, and how much to excise. Sharks are circling, sensing a wounded prey, and I’m at their mercy. There is a heavy silence while about 25 people wait for me to make a decision. I turn to the lead trumpet, who seems like a friendly face, someone who is not going to let this last forever, and ask for his recommendation. My acknowledgement that I need help is well-received, useful suggestions are made, and the offending phrases cut in trombones and saxes, leaving the trumpets to make the running at that point.
I return to the drums, we run the difficult passage, which now seems smooth and efficient, and the producer in the control room, with a very large clock on the wall, patiently suggests we go for a take. “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around,” as Talking Heads might have said. The whole thing is being video’d, and cameras and unbearably harsh lighting appear to be everywhere. We are by now at about the hour mark, and the first take of ‘Lingo’ is going well. The sound of the band in the headphones is exhilarating, and I begin to relax into the groove as I make a note that I must do more of this. We safely negotiate the tricky rapids at letter B and Steve Marcus launches into his solo. Then I catch sight of the bass player…
With Neil Peart, pic Rob Wallis c.1994
Shirley - 07/01/2009 16:52:13
I watched the BBC4 "Prog Rock" program and felt compelled to post on your board. I adored your comment that timing is everything and thank goodness for me you were born in 1949. I also noted that 95% of the 1970's audience were male and I am proud that I was a part of your 5% female audience. I have been listening to everything you have done for over 35 years, I saw you at The Rainbow with UK in 1978 (ish) and in the last few years spent two utopian eveings with you in Norwich. I am in many ways a frustrated listener in that I have never mastered a musical instrument yet truly feel and appreciate what it is that you do. My musical tastes are eclectic, complicated and are not confined to that rather catch all genre known as Prog Rock. Having said that when I browse my huge record (yes some still vinyl!) collection I usually end up listening to something with you credited on the sleeve. My compulsion to write to you this evening is to say to you - thank you. You have for years and still continue to give to me hours of pleasure, more so than any other musician. What you do is very very special.
Regards Shirley (Norwich)
What a nice way to start the New Year. Many thanks!
James Donegan - 17/12/2008 12:05:06
Hi Bill wishing you and your family a peaceful holiday season.
I have a couple of questions about Patrick Moraz. Would you say he is somewhat a go between rock and jazz? I myself do not hear the bebop lines that would be associated with the styles that many of the fine pianists have brought to Earthworks.
Patrick does of course bring allot of creativity and two fisted rhythmic virtuosity.Did you and him discuss rhythms and harmonic theory in your time together? I appreciate any input you may offer.Both "Music for Piano and Drums" and "Flags" are quite impressive. Thanks again. James Donegan.
Yes, Patrick was far more rhythmic than harmonic, and very keen on Brazilian music. He had lived in Brazil for a while before we worked together. Musicians don’t really sit around talking about musical theory, funnily enough. Usually we talk about luggage – the most durable suitcase etc – or how to make the latest telecommunications work. Or how to make something work. When I worked with him I was in a hazy transition from progressive rock to jazz, and as Earthworks became established, the pianists - Django Bates, Steve Hamilton, Gwilym Simcock - became more overtly ‘jazz’, whatever that means.
Steven Ward - 16/12/2008 13:48:29
Was listening last night to one of my favorite albums of all time -- David Torn's "Cloud About Mercury."
What an album!
It's filled with jazz, fusion, pop, prog, ambient music -- it has everything.
Do you have fond memories of the music and the recording experience?
Were the four of you in one studio improvising, playing charts or back at your own personal studios sending your parts back and forth -- something that happens far too frequently these days.
One of my favourit albums also - love it. I like it more now than at the time. I was very hung up on the inflexibility of the electronic drum set I was using, but I’ve forgotten what all the problems were, so am finally in a position to be able to hear the music rather than my problems. It was all recorded really very live in a London studio with Manfred Eicher from ECM Records producing, but after some rehearsals of the material in Woodstock NY. Coming from the pristine beauty of his acoustic jazz recordings, Manfred was very suspicious of the electronic drums, but eventually came around to the idea. For me it all kicked off in the middle of ‘3 Minutes of Pure Entertainment’ - one of those tracks that makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The album sold well. Tony and I were briefly fashionable, coming off the back of King Crimson, and Mark Isham went on, as you probaly know, to do very well in movie scoring. David and I did a second album of his together, called ‘Door X’ for Wyndham Hill. He’s beyond doubt one of my favourite guitarists.
Steven Sullivan - 02/12/2008 12:35:21
Some years back -- I believe it was at the signing table after a BLUE concert in Alexandria, Virginia -- I said (not *entirely* un-seriously) that since you embody the history of British prog rock, you must write an autobiography. You laughed and said that only your Mum would be interested in reading such a thing! I'm delighted to see you've changed your mind, and look forward to reading the book come Spring!
I’m reliably persuaded there is indeed a small readership for such a thing! It’s been more hazardous writing it than I thought, and it’s definitely not as easy as it looks. I started it because it all got too big for a diary, and I wanted to get some points off my chest. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s written for the layman, by way of explanation of what it is that people like me actually do. It should be alternately pacy, thoughtful, interesting and exciting, If it isn’t, I’ve written the wrong book.