Thursday, June 9, 2016

"Walpurgis Night" - Whitney Balliett on Buddy Rich

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Whitney Balliett ... was above all a poet, who pursued poetry by other means. He wrote for The New Yorker magazine for almost fifty years, mostly about jazz, and what he wrote was so good that Philip Larkin, not an easy man to please about either jazz or poetry, called him a “master of language,” while, years later, the young Nicholson Baker still referred to him, in a wondering aside, as a “tireless prodigy.”

William Shaw his editor at The New Yorker said of him: ‘Whitney was about as pure a stylist as anyone who has written American English, yet his sentences were almost always about someone else’s art; that’s what gave his writing its modesty and its tensile strength.’

Reading through the books he made from pieces  … what delights and amazes is the quality of his line, what William Shawn, once called his ‘genius for saying in words how a particular musician or musicians sound. Whitney could place on the page the sound of someone playing — not the reasons the sound might matter to a historian, or even the way it felt to an enthusiast, but the way it really sounded, the way it was.'”
- Adam Gopnik, The New York Times


Given Whitney’s “genius for saying in words how a particular musician or musicians sound” we get the title of this piece - Walpurgis Night - which appeared in Dinosaurs in the Morning: 41 Pieces on Jazz by Whitney Balliett.

There was no reference to drummer Buddy Rich in the original title of Whitney’s piece - I added that.

I mean, how many of us know that in Germanic and Scandanavian folklore, Walpurgis Night or Walpurgisnacht is the night before May Day, a night when goblins, witches and sorcerers rule and make their presence felt with powerful storms made up of high winds, thunder and lightning.?

As you read the piece Whitney makes the connection between Buddy’s style of drumming and “thunder and lighting,” but it takes a while for the reader to get there.

While not a studied musician [he was an amateur drummer], Whitney substituted descriptive prose filled with literary allusions, allegories and analogies all of which provided an uncanny description of a particular Jazz musician and his style of playing.

There’s no doubt that Whitney got Buddy right in terms of his strengths and his weaknesses, but he doesn’t describe them in musical terms.

As Whitney states: “There was no doubt that Buddy Rich … [was] the greatest virtuoso in jazz drumming. And that during his lifetime few other drummers could match his technical prowess [although I would add Joe Morello’s name along with Louie Bellson’s to Whitney’s list of those drummers who could measure up to Buddy].”

And it is hard to disagree with Whitney when he asserts that:

“Overpowered by his astonishing gifts, Rich has become a captive of his own virtuosity. As a result, the felicities that have made less well-equipped drummers, such as Sid Catlett and Jo Jones, his superiors have been almost completely crowded out. He has little sense of taste, dynamics, and shading, and none of the elasticity essential to great drumming. His playing never changes, his solos are often militaristic and far too long, and in general he projects an uncompromising rigidity that tends to flatten rather than elevate his cohorts.

For all of Rich's energy and steadiness, he is a peculiarly dull accompanist.” ...

For many years, there was no selectivity in Rich's solos, no chance for the listener to sort out what was happening.. Casting aside all that has come before, he rotates, crisscrosses, and trampoline around his set, moving with incredible speed from snare to tom-tom to cymbals to snare to cymbals to tom-tom snare cymbals cymbals snare tom-tom snare tom tom tom. . . . Walpurgis Night. High winds. Thunder and lightning.”

Here’s the full text of Whitney’s piece so that you can put these remarks about Buddy in context.

“It is no longer fashionable or even polite to suggest that many Negro jazz musicians possess certain built-in gifts—a sense of rhythm, physical dexterity and grace, an aptitude for great improvisation— that are rarely granted their white colleagues. Indeed, to propose that Negro musicians are blessed with such characteristics has become a reverse heresy. Scientists, doing a variation on Lysenko, snort at the theory, while many jazz critics regard it as an admission of counteracting and less pleasant characteristics. Be that as it may, those misguided jazz admirers who are sufficiently brave to cross picket lines to give Negro jazz musicians their due have, if nothing else, irrefutable statistics on their side. Thus, there have been dozens of first-rate Negro musicians and, give or take a Gerry Mulligan or Stan Getz, only five comparable white musicians: Bix Beiderbecke, Dave Tough, Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, and Django Reinhardt. There have, however, been plenty of white jazz musicians who, lacking this or that elusive quality, have been almost men instead of merely highly talented boys. One of these is Buddy Rich, who remains the greatest virtuoso in jazz drumming.

A lithe, compact, nervous, temperamental man with close-cropped hair and a gladiator handsomeness, Rich has had an explosive history that began on the vaudeville stage when he was eighteen months old and that has carried him through the bands of Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Harry James, through Norman Granz's "Jazz at the Philharmonic,” through recording sessions with everyone from Art Tatum to Charlie Parker, and through innumerable groups of his own.

Rich came into prominence in the early forties with Dorsey, ran neck and neck for several years with his principal model, Gene Krupa, eclipsed him, and in turn was eclipsed by the tumultuous arrival of bebop and the new school of jazz drumming led by Max Roach. Nonetheless, Rich's influence, which has been considerable, is still visible. Among others, Louis Bellson, Ed Shaughnessy, and Shelly Manne have admired him, and so have latecomers like Joe Morello, Philly Joe Jones, and Frank Butler. Almost none of them, however, have matched his technical prowess (Bellson is the only exception).

Aside from his debt to Krupa, Rich's style is his own. It appears at first to be just about flawless. Monolithic and commanding, Rich has an infallible beat, and the exuberance to make that beat catching. His playing is clean and decisive, and he never misses a stroke. He is a proficient ensemble man and a frequently stunning soloist. But those qualities are not enough—or, rather, they are too much.

Overpowered by his astonishing gifts, Rich has become a captive of his own virtuosity. As a result, the felicities that have made less well-equipped drummers, such as Sid Catlett and Jo Jones, his superiors have been almost completely crowded out. He has little sense of taste, dynamics, and shading, and none of the elasticity essential to great drumming. His playing never changes, his solos are often militaristic and far too long, and in general he projects an uncompromising rigidity that tends to flatten rather than elevate his cohorts.

For all of Rich's energy and steadiness, he is a peculiarly dull accompanist. One reason lies in the way he tunes his drums. They give off a dry, stale sound that never blends tonally with the other instruments. Another reason is plain unimaginative-ness. Instead of sympathetic timbres behind a soloist (the ocean motion of Jo Jones's high-hat cymbals, Catlett's rimshots, the sleigh-bell tintinnabulations of Connie Kay's ride-cymbal figures), one is conscious only of a metronomic deliberation. His cymbal work is light and clear, but it evaporates before it has taken effect, while his accents on the bass drum and snare are limited to thuds and implacable rim shots, fired exactly where expected. All of Rich's accompanying has, in sum, a now-is-it-my-turn-yet? air. When his turn does come, his face exhibits agony, his body contracts, taking on a ball shape, his arms blur, his drumsticks break and rocket about.

For many years, there was no selectivity in Rich's solos, no chance for the listener to sort out what was happening. Recently, though, he has begun to construct them instead of merely spawning them. His best ones occur in middle tempos. He may begin on his snare with a series of I.B.M. beats arranged intensely on or near the beat (from which he never wanders far), insert cracked-knuckle rimshots and short rolls, drop Big Ben offbeats on the bass drum, intensify his snare-and-rimshot patterns, and, bringing his auxiliary arms into action, overlay these patterns with staccato cymbal strokes. Gradually, this duplex figure grows increasingly solid as he forces more and more beats into spaces seemingly already filled. By this time, his virtuosity has begun to devour him. Casting aside all that has come before, he rotates, crisscrosses, and trampoline around his set, moving with incredible speed from snare to tom-tom to cymbals to snare to cymbals to tom-tom snare cymbals cymbals snare tom-tom snare tom tom tom. . . . Walpurgis Night. High winds. Thunder and lightning. And even though what he is playing has ceased to make any musical sense, it has become the sort of high-wire exhibitionism that compels the listener to jump up and make foolish sounds. Then, a hypercrescendo is reached, and suddenly it is over. The roar drifts smartly away, the ball unfurls, the arms slip back into focus, the face smiles, and the ovation — a kind of coda to the solo itself — begins.

All that need be known about Rich can be found on two records, "Buddy and Sweets" (Verve) and "Rich versus Roach" (Mercury). "Buddy and Sweets," made with Harry Edison, Jimmy Rowles, and John Simmons, contains two of the best and most conservative solos Rich has recorded. (There are seven numbers in all.) These occur in "Yellow Rose of Brooklyn," which is taken at a very fast tempo, and in the medium "Barney's Bugle." In the second solo, which Rich holds down to five minutes, he pauses now and then before falling into his customary trance, and there are even a few round-the-set explosions, topped with silence, that suggest the timing of Catlett—a comparison that might not please Rich. Here is the pianist Billy Taylor reminiscing, in a book called Hear Me Talkin' to Ya, about Rich versus Catlett: "Sid was a great soloist and a great showman. He was completely at home musically in whatever he was doing. I remember once on the Coast, when Buddy Rich, Dodo Marmarosa, and Buddy De Franco were all with Tommy Dorsey, they used to come into the clubs and cut everybody. [Rich] was cutting all the drummers, but not Sid. It used to annoy Buddy so much. He'd play all over his head — play fantastically — and then Sid would gently get back on the stand, and play his simple, melodic lines — on drums — and he'd make his point."

The Mercury record is rewarding for the way in which Rich's rigidity and Roach's limpidity offset each other. There are eight numbers, in which two small groups led by Rich and Roach collaborate, giving way frequently for short exchanges and full-length excursions between the drummers. Rich comes through best in the medium "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)," where he is in a nervous rim-shot mood, and in the slower "Big Foot," a blues in which he matches double-time breaks with Roach. "Figure Eights" consists of four and one half minutes of Rich and Roach trading breaks at a tempo faster than the ordinary mortal can tap his foot to. The inevitable happens. After Rich's third break, a sensational bit of broken-field running, the two men attempt to quell one another by falling into a series of buzzes—Rich: zzzzzzzzzzz; Roach: zzZ-zzZZZzzZ; Rich: ZZZZZZZzzZZ, and so forth. But there has been no contest; a sundial doesn't stand a chance with a clock.”

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