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Steve Smith & Buddy's Buddies:
Very Live at Ronnie Scott's, Vol. 2


This is the second of two CDs recorded live at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London on June 7th and 8th, 2002. The recordings mark the triumphant return to the club of two stars of Buddy's orchestra -- first tenor Steve Marcus and lead alto Andy Fusco -- now teamed with pianist Mark Soskin and bassist Baron Browne under the guiding beat of master drummer Steve Smith. Smith says, "The CDs follow exactly the two sets we played at Ronnie's. We developed the song order over the week and came up with two balanced sets: we kicked off with one or two high energy tunes, a tune in 3/4 time, a ballad in the middle, a piano trio tune and then a high energy closer. And I made sure there were drum solos throughout!"

Soskin, who describes himself as a "Buddy's Buddy by osmosis," remarks, "It's such a high energy band that I think it's really exciting for the audience." Fusco adds, "It captures the spirit of Buddy's band -- an orchestrated quintet in the spirit of a big band. You can make it work by having guys like Mark - and before him, Lee Musiker, who wrote out some of those great band charts. It's an odd instrumentation - alto and tenor - so we're only missing 14 instruments! At least we only need a very small bus!"

The second set opens with a medium swing rendition of Coltrane's "Moment's Notice." The band immediately sounds tight, fluent and confident, with finely judged changes of dynamics and great solos all-round. You can tell they're having a ball -- supreme musicians totally in their element.

Then it's straight into "Norwegian Wood," another of Buddy's famous pieces and for my money this Lee Musiker arrangement is more successful than the Rich original. Yes, I know that's sacrilege, but this version is more evocative and true to (composer) John Lennon's quirky spirit. The interweaving harmonies of the horns are fabulous on the head -- who'd have guessed Lennon could write a melody so suited to a jazz quintet? Soskin takes us off on a darting solo, followed by Marcus' soprano, snaking, cajoling, twisting like a whirlwind. When the tune is restated Smith gets into the spirit with some furious rolls before the piano takes us down to a gentle fade.

"New Blues," with its mellow tune and stylish arrangement, elicited one of Buddy's most memorably thoughtful recorded performances. And while you might not expect the small group to attempt some of the big band's more boisterous favourites, New Blues lends itself to the quintet perfectly. Once more Musiker's arrangement follows the broad path of the big band's version, cleverly maximizing the instrumentation so that you really don't feel anything is lacking. As Fusco says, "'New Blues' doesn't miss a thing."

The rousing Sonny Rollins standard "Airegin" follows, opening with a 6/8 Latin groove leading into flat-out, straight-ahead swing. Following sweltering tenor and alto solos, the band drops out leaving Fusco and Smith locked in a head-to-head duel of nerve-tingling invention. And we're not even halfway through the track yet! Marcus' tenor rejoins Fusco's alto to exchange yet more ideas with the drums. Finally the piano takes control and the Latin groove returns. Smith solos over the piano and bass - throwing in timbale-like licks and even a taste of his cutting-edge rhythmic displacement for good measure... Now there's something you wouldn't have heard from Buddy.

Time for a ballad and Gershwin's "Embraceable You" is a vehicle for the lyrical side of altoist Fusco, which, like "Big Man's Blues" from the first CD, is arranged by Andy's good friend and ex-Rich man Walt Weiskopf. While the saxophonists take a breather, we follow the pattern of the first set with a highly resourceful trio piece on another theme, which became synonymous with Buddy. The familiar 'Cool' from West Side Story is given a witty and feisty treatment by the trio. Starting out cool indeed, Soskin gradually builds up to a phenomenal swing with Smith showing off his considerable brush chops. As the piece climaxes we're treated to a terrific bass solo from Browne who is in great form throughout both CDs.

Now we're reaching the climax of the show and swing is finally replaced by eighth-note funk for "No Jive." Smith counts off with a tasty paradiddle groove which the audience greets with cheers and whistles. Baron ups the ante with thumb-slapping bass. The band joins in one by one, tenor, piano and finally both saxes, locked in harmony -- Marcus and Fusco, with an understanding and tightness born of years of working together, sound as one. There's a brief passage of tenor and drums with Smith taking the opportunity to throw in a little double bass drum work. An outrageously funky bass solo follows before we reach the anticipated final drum solo of the night. And it's literally frightening in its power, speed and virtuosity. Steve initially nods in Buddy's direction with a dynamically controlled press roll and then he's off, careering around the kit in a blur. The crowd is on its feet and the band are in no doubt they've made many new fans.

As with the first CD there are bonus tracks, this time three alternate takes from the afternoon's sound check. Rest assured the extra takes of "Love For Sale," "Big Man's Blues" and "Bopformation" are as highly charged as the live cuts -- I was there during the afternoon and the concentration of the musicians was astounding, always giving 100%-plus, just like Buddy. Smith sums it up, "It was a pleasure and honor to play Ronnie Scott's. The UK audience really loves this type of high energy, swinging jazz." And Fusco agrees, "It's been a great week. It's so nice to come over here and get full houses every night. People have been really nice to us and the band sounds great, especially with some new arrangements. I have a good feeling we'll come back here again."

Geoff Nicholls -- November 2002

Geoff Nicholls is a British journalist drummer who has contributed to numerous music publications including Rhythm, Modern Drummer, the Melody Maker and Mojo, as well as newspapers The Guardian and The Independent. Current books include The Drum Book: A History of the Rock Drum Kit, John Bonham, A Thunder of Drums and Cream: The Legendary Supergroup.



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All Music Guide Rating: Four Stars

This CD denotes the second of two appearances at the famous London, England jazz spot. With this effort, master drummer Steve Smith performs with ex-Buddy Rich band members, saxophonists Steve Marcus, Andy Fusco and other notables. Nonetheless, Smith drives this quintet thru a set of largely, jazz standards such as Coltrane's 3Moments Notice," and Sonny Rollins' 3Airegin." However, as intimated in the liner notes, the band does offer a small scale footprint of the Rich big band's rapidly paced stride and acute use of dynamics.

In any event, the musicians convey a tight knit, upbeat groove, regardless of tempo. Everyone gets an opportunity to stretch yet one of the more noticeable aspects of this release pertains to Smith's flawlessly constructed rhythms. Even his solos are somewhat patterned after Rich's lightning fast fills, cross sticking maneuvers and sweeping tom rolls. A highly entertaining effort, indeed!

- Glenn Astarita, All Music Guide

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