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Buddy Rich

The Solos

(Lightyear; US: 13 May 2014; UK: 12 May 2014)

To modern listeners, the name Buddy Rich may well not have nearly the resonance it did with the audiences captured on these live recordings from 1976-77. Contemporarily, Rich is perhaps better known for a certain verbal tirade delivered on a tour bus, post-show, to a clearly shocked band, surreptitiously recorded as the virtuoso drummer explored a variety of expletives and disparaging terms for the members of his backing group. Having made the rounds on the Internet after years on the bootleg circuit, these recordings painted Rich as an uncompromising tyrant with a decidedly short fuse—something he was often admittedly known for—though rarely in as public a setting as afforded by the infamous bus tapes. While certainly cementing the legend, those tapes have also somewhat overshadowed the memory of what was truly an exceptional talent driven to perfection and accepting nothing less, from both his bands and himself.


These nine solos show Rich as a master of control and technique, maintaining a rock-solid tempo while employing a wide array of polyrhythms and fancy stick work that often gives the impression of a small battery featuring myriad limbs flailing about rather than a mere four. When pressed to listen closely, it can become nearly impossible to single out exactly what is going on at any given moment, due to the sheer speed with which Rich attacks his kit. From a visual standpoint, much of this must have come across as little more than a blur of frenetic motion that, while controlled, seemed to lack any sort of rhyme or reason, defying the notion of what the human body was capable of, each limb seemingly functioning with a mind of its own to create the appearance of a larger ensemble.


While undoubtedly exhausting over the course of an hour plus, there is certainly an exhilarating musicality that comes with Rich’s approach. When the band comes in hot at the tail end of “Solo 1”, you almost forget that you’ve been listening to eight straight minutes of nothing but solo drums, taken almost completely out of their original context. More than anything, this serves as a tribute to Rich and his highly influential, idiosyncratic approach to his instrument, pushing the limits of both the kit and himself with relative ease and to the delight of the audiences collected here.


As the album progresses, the sheer variety of approaches to the solo becomes astounding, as Rich displays a seemingly bottomless well of ideas, one flowing seamlessly to the next, creating as distinct and fiery a solo voice on his instrument as that of Coltrane. With an alternately aggressive tumbling and highly restrained, nimble approach to his drum solos, Rich easily puts any rock drummer to shame with the force and control with which he attacks his kit again and again and, in the process, raises the bar for what could and should be expected from jazz drummers.


With “Solo 2”, it’s as if the band, despite their undeniable skill and tightness, is struggling just to keep up with Rich as he races through a number of ideas that push the boundaries of comprehension, exploring innumerable rhythmic combinations across the whole of the kit. His utilization of his sticks alone, against the rim of his kit, has to be heard to be believed and, judging from the audience’s uproarious reaction following a particularly virtuoso passage, proved quite a visual spectacle as well.


Throughout, the control on display with his rolls on the snare drum are simply unbelievable as he routinely crescendos and decrescendos to absurd volumes at both ends of the sonic spectrum while still maintaining an impossibly tight, precise roll that seems to defy conventional logic, all the while exploring various off-beats on the other elements of the kit at his disposal.


On “Solo 3”, recorded at Disneyland in 1977, a raucous crowd giddily urges Rich on to ever greater virtuosic heights as he whips them into a frenzy with his blazing speed and impeccable control. By far the most vocal response Rich receives on this particular series of recordings, it seems more than appropriate from a crowd surrounded by a slightly surreal theme park. Rich does little to disappoint and, nearly 40 years later, the excitement is still palpable.


At 11 minutes in length, “Solo 5”, recorded in Germany in 1977, provides Rich with ample opportunity to stretch out, exploring each piece of his kit in detail and giving each a vigorous workout. Throughout, he shows off an unparalleled dynamic palette that alternates from pianissimo to forte with ease, as if one were simply turning a volume knob on the recording rather than controlling each move with impeccable precision.


Due to the varying degrees of fidelity across the tracks, it can be a bit jarring when the horns do come in as the mix is certainly, and rightly so, designed to favor the drums. Often sounding a bit compressed and blown out, the other instruments serve more as a reminder that there were other people on stage at the time of these exceptional performances, and to provide some minimal contextualization rather than adding anything of note to the proceedings.


An exhausting, highly enjoyable immersive listening experience, one would run out of superlatives to describe Rich’s innumerable solo ideas collected here on The Solos long before he himself would run out of ways in which to execute them. Even if you have no experience with drums whatsoever, these recordings will leave you breathless in their brilliance. A true master on full, phenomenal display.

Rating:

John is a Michigan-based musician and writer. He currently reviews music for PopMatters and Spectrum Culture, while also working his way through his ever-expanding record collection at www.tumblr.com/blog/vinylcompulsion.


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