There has lately developed a trend of dubious merit. Some legitimate (that is, for-profit) record labels have begun releasing what can only be called bootlegs. Tapes – often recorded by audience members on inexpensive amateur equipment – of live performances are now finding their way into the commercial marketplace. And I say this as an aficionado of ROIOs (recordings of indeterminate/illegitimate origin), but while these recordings certainly deserve a hearing, many of them are of a quality that simply doesn’t justify full list price.
It’s one thing if you’re a hardcore fan of, say, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, and you’re willing to trade for or (more likely these days) download a collection of their 1968 appearances on BBC radio. And if you’re a rabid follower of Fountains of Wayne, Liz Phair, or John Fogerty, you might be satisfied with hissy, cassette-sourced, unknown-generation copies of (respectively) Pinnwheel, The Girlysound Tapes, or Hoodoo. But if you’re a more casual (read: well-adjusted) admirer of those artists’ works, you’d feel cheated if you spent full retail on any of those titles (if they were legitimately available; at press time, they aren’t). There’s a good argument to be made for bringing rare juvenilia of acclaimed artists into a wide audience; it just needs to be labeled (and priced) as such. Recent “legit” releases of some Captain Beefheart tapes are especially egregious examples of dumping substandard product onto the (virtual) shelves.
Happily, there are exceptions, examples of quite-good recordings that have never seen previous release. And Birdland is just such an exception, the kind that proves the rule. Renowned big-band jazz drummer and bandleader Buddy Rich had a bad haircut and a temper to match it, but in his long heyday, he and his band really, really swung. They swung hard, man.
Sometime between 1977 and 1980 – the liner notes are oddly cagey about both the date and location – one of Rich’s saxophone players (Alan Gauvin) captured some live performance (or performances) on one of those consumer-grade Sony portable AM/FM/cassette players. Gauvin’s only concessions to professional recording techniques were the use of an external stereo mic, and clever (or serendipitous) choice of mic placement. With the recording device set up right in front of the sax section, Gauvin ended up with some recordings of surprisingly high fidelity, and a balance that couldn’t have been greatly improved upon with a pro setup. As time went on, he upgraded the recording device used, the microphone(s) and the mic placement.
That tape (or those tapes; again the specific provenance of the eleven cuts on Birdland is unclear) has been subjected to some very minor post-production cleanup – probably the judicious removal of a layer of tape hiss – and the resulting collection is a highly listenable document of Rich’s late 70s band.
Buddy Rich occupied an odd place on the musical landscape. While his chosen genre of big band music had fallen all but completely out of style by the 1960s, he pivoted in a way that – somehow – kept him and his band relevant. Pick up most any Buddy Rich LP from the mid 1960s onward, and you’re likely to recognize many of the song titles. The Doors‘ “Hello, I Love You,” Bobbie Gentry‘s “Ode to Billie Joe,” and a medley of tunes from The Who‘s Tommy are highlights of those records. To say that Rich had a canny pop sensibility is no stretch. While his band’s set lists provided a number of classics loved by an older generation, Buddy Rich was always a pretty hip dude. And his selection of material showed it. The percussionist once known as Traps the Drum Wonder was about sixty years of age when Birdland was recorded; Rich was a pretty tuned-in sixty-year-old.
The title track of this new collection is a case in point. Weather Report were enjoying the crossover success (and Grammy nomination) of “Birdland,” a track off their 1977 Heavy Weather LP. Rich took notice and added the number to his band’s set list. With all the energy and swing-ness of the original intact, Rich and his band tear through the song, allowing showcases by individual soloists.
Other tracks veer between brassy showstoppers like “Moments Notice,” a slower, romantic reading of “God Bless the Child,” and the surprisingly funky “Three Day Sucker.” Assuming – in the absence of tangible evidence to the contrary – that Birdland represents a single concert, Rich and band constantly change up the tempo, with a barnburner followed by a sweet melody. It’s alternately a thrill ride and a lovely listen. But one thing it never is, is dull. While 2014’s Buddy Rich archival release The Solos is by its very nature an item of specialist interest (hey, I love it), Birdland deserves to be heard by anyone who appreciates Buddy Rich’s big band style. And if it’s not your thing, maybe give it a try anyway; you might just be surprised. To quote the title of a song long associated with the man (the tune is included as the closer on this set), Buddy Rich always strove to “Keep the Customer Satisfied.”
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