Warning contains industrial-strength language:
What kind of playing do you think this is? What kind of miscues do you call this? What fuckin’ band do you think you’re playing on, MOTHERFUCKERS! You wanna fuck with me on the bandstand?!
Like most of my generation I first heard of Buddy Rich via the line in Beastie Boys ‘Sabotage’ , ‘I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle’ but it took me a good 10 years to investigate further. My father babysat a load of LPs for a friend of his who was moving on to a narrowboat and The Buddy Rich Big Band Mercy Mercy: Recorded Live at Caesar’s Palace was one of them, so that’s where I got my first shot of it, only buying my own copy in November 2008. The cover intrigued me, a man of a certain age dressed in something resembling a black velvet smock and love beads, standing in front of, or pasted in front of, a shed load of psychedelic posters, patterns and rugs; well, maybe this is what people did in 1968 before the invention of the internet.
I gotta go up there and be embarrassed by you motherfuckers? I played with the greatest fuckin’ musicians in the world. How DARE you play like that for me
Now I own a certain number of jazz LPs, but I tend to play it a bit safe and stick to the big names because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I admire the musicianship immensely from afar, whilst knowing even less about how it’s made than say, Peruvian Trip-Hop and (I know this is a line I’ve used before, but I’m not one for letting originality stop me) so I can’t talk engagingly about sub-atonal G# paradiddles on a 14/6 blues-based stomp. I’ve known very good rock drummers reduced to tears by a single jazz drumming lesson. But I would say to them, you think playing jazz is hard? try writing about the stuff!
A bit of background is useful here. Buddy Rich was a 51-year-old jazz drumming legend when he recorded this LP, having taken the flamboyance of Gene Krupa and the swing of Chick Webb and harnessing it to a technique and power that was all his own. You can hear it in the solo spots on ‘Channel 1 Suite’ on this LP, he hits as hard as a rock drummer but with what even a cloth-eared layman, such as myself, can hear is a delicate swinging touch; later of course my favourite jazz drummer Billy Cobham would crank up the power again. The sleevenotes* tell me that at this point in time Buddy Rich was angling to give the more esoteric numbers in his set ‘a contemporary pop feel’ and the more contemporary tracks more layers and ‘flavour’. Mercy Mercy was recorded in two live sessions over two nights at Caesar’s Palace whilst working on an engagement with Tony Bennett; The Fartz at Dave’s Disco in ‘Frisco this ain’t.
Kicking off with ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’ the LP hits the floor running, the tune is a funked-up beast which showcase not only Rich’s assertive drumming but also the ensemble as a whole, particularly Walter Namuth on guitar and the titanic brass sound of the whole ensemble. ‘Preach and Teach’ is up next and is one of my faves on the LP, it swings hard – to my ears like a hot-rodded version of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Art Pepper’s alto solo is a thing of joy. Bill Reddie’s ‘Channel 1 Suite’ is up next and sounds like the soundtrack to a particularly chintzy 1965 Hollywood romance, all moody sax, fantastic bustling rhythmic sections and peaks and troughs, an unkind listener might say that it is ‘a bit Saturday night variety show’, with some justification actually and therein lies the rub.
You got two fuckin’ weeks to make up your mind. Do ya want a beard or do ya want a job? I will not have this shit! This band is not the goddamn fuckin’ House of David baseball team. It’s the Buddy Rich Band—young people with faces. No more fuckin’ beards. It’s out! If you decide to do it, you’re through. Right now! This is the last time I make this announcement. No more fucking beards. I don’t wanna see it. If ya got it, you’re gonna shave it off. I’ll treat ya just like they treat ya in the Marine Corps. This is the way I want my band to look. If ya don’t like it, get out!”
Despite being recorded in 1968 and showing Buddy posing in far out glad rags, this is wonderfully tight old jazz, not any of that new-fangled wild improvisatory nonsense. This is jazz that, I suspect even at the time had one foot in vaudeville and variety. Don’t come here looking for wild electric wig outs and John Mclaughlin, Mercy Mercy is about polishing a well muscled highly drilled take on more traditional jazz structures until it squeaks. Years ago I would have rejected it for that reason alone, but I can see it for what it is in the here and now.
How dare you call yourselves professional! Assholes!! You got nowhere to fuckin’ go the next set ’cause if I hear one fuckin’ clam from anybody, you’ve had it. One clam and this whole fuckin’ band is through TONIGHT. Try me!
The second side of the LP is generally more melodic and tune-based than the first and the best track is the first one, ‘Big Mama Cass’ – a big, brassy, in-your-face sexy track, go figure and a smoking** cover of the Bobby Gentry song ‘Ode to Billy Joe’. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned, but I would be really interested to hear his drumming powering something a bit more out there though – but hey, dogs don’t meow.
Buddy Rich flying off the handle? well my italic-loving friends, Mr Rich was exposed by the Tour Bus Tapes as a somewhat fearsome ringmaster. If you find swearing as big and clever as I do then firstly suggest you head over here and then check out this excellent article from Jazz Times which puts it all in context. For some reason I seem to have lost my power to embed Youtube videos this evening – exposure to 1537ite ? not sure. Do have a look. There is also an awesome clip of Mr Rich duelling with Animal from the Muppets here.
You try one fuck-up the next set and when you get back to New York you’ll need another fuckin’ job. COUNT ON IT! Now get outta my fuckin’ bus.
*ah sleevenotes! Let me count the ways I love thee.
**us licensed^ professional jazz critics can use the word ‘smoking’ (or indeed for especially smoking performances we’re allowed to use the word ‘smokin”)
^you heard me – fully licensed from The Indianapolis Academy of Contemporary Jazz and Improvisatory Dance (IACJID); Honours 2nd Class. True story. I saw active service in the Acid Jazz Wars but I’m prevented from talking about for security reasons.