by Joe Zawinul; recommended performance: Jazz Icons DVD, “Buddy Rich, Live in ’78” (in Holland, released 2006), featuring the “Killer Force” band, with Steve Marcus on soprano saxophone.

What a fun tune (one of those pieces that makes jazz so COOL), which of course Manhattan Transfer recognized when they recorded their hugely popular vocalese version. (A live performance is on Youtube, as is the Rich version I’m recommending, but the DVDs are worth owning: please support the music.) Its sections unfold into the main theme like a pretty little flower, and here the Killer Force embody the bop-rock-swing fusion that, in a better world, would have kept the big band sound popular – cooking proof that it had evolved well beyond cucumber-sandwich saxophone choruses in a strum-strumma-strum straw hat canoe.

Then again, never mind that drums are the original musical instrument, and that Beat is radical to human music, the idea of a drummer fronting a big band is a bit de trop, never mind whether it’s Rich or Gene Krupa or Ginger Baker, and never mind Don Ellis’s thrilling success with his multiple-drum-heavy arrangements during the late nineteen-sixties. Rich seems determined that the battery won’t overwhelm his ensembles, and although the drums are very much up front in his charts, they allowed the whole band to shine: this particular ensemble really is a killer force; what a loss to have Marcus die at 61, Rich at 70. Rich boasted both the celebrity and talent to bring in top players, along with the moxy and smarts to exploit them fully. (Notice that on fretless electric bass Tom Warrington out-Pastoriuses the Pastorius of the Weather Report original.)

Though my Uncle Gene played briefly in one of Rich’s bands (see the postings on “Forest Flower” and “Two O’Clock Jump”), I saw the drummer live only once, in Toronto, at the Victory Burlesque Theatre in 1974, just after its tenure as a strip club. (The theatre’s history has a geological feel: located in the old Jewish district on Spadina at Dundas West, the building started out as a leftist Yiddish theatre in 1921, then became an art movie house, then the Victory, and today is a part of Chinatown’s seedy(ish) commercial district. For once, the city had the kishkas to stand up to the bully developers and realtors who have pretty well run Toronto during the last half century: the building has been designated an historical property.) I don’t recall a single tune, but the show – the playing, of course, but, typical of Rich, the show – kept me ecstatic for days. (For his role in “Whiplash,” surely J. K. Simmons studied the notoriously tetchy drummer.) I had been in Canada for only a few months, and seeing Rich made me feel less homesick, for the American wild west, and for hard-hitting jazz. And I got to experience the Victory just before it closed – something I’ve been able to dine out on since, with a perfect defence to the political correctness that has run rampant at the dinner table then and now: I was there for the music, an evidence-based explanation – given that the strippers had all disappeared – where “I read Playboy for the articles” is defrocked as a bare excuse.

The date: Rich was born on September 30 in 1917.


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