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Steve Smith & Buddy's Buddies:
Very Live at Ronnie Scott's, Vol. 1

The lights come up on the famous stage at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London as Steve Smith and Buddy's Buddies launch into their first set of the evening. Up front, Steve Marcus, with that familiar professorial shock of white hair, spirited and mercurial on tenor and soprano, partners towering ex-footballer Andy Fusco, dwarfing his alto, evincing the essence of swing, snapping his fingers, dancing. Meanwhile, Mark Soskin smiles from behind the grand piano, adding colour and texture, swagger and drive, digging every minute. Electric bassist Baron Browne is happy to sit at the back, pumping away, getting funky when it's needed, and soloing more than I've ever seen him.

Then there's drummer Steve Smith, who just gets better each year. He's studied the history and it shows. You don't have to be a drummer to appreciate his mastery, the erect posture, the economy of motion. Like Buddy, he's visually riveting - slicing cymbals up and down, making acrobatic cross-overs. Where Buddy was instinctive Steve's more studied. Buddy would work up a sweat in no time while Steve always appears cool. Yet he's capable of the same crowd-exciting solos and driving swing that were Buddy's stock-in-trade. He's from a different era but the work ethic is the same. Night after night. Just like Buddy.

Looking back to when Buddy Rich first came to England in 1967 he caused a monumental stir amongst British musicians. Buddy crammed his mighty orchestra into Ronnie Scott's intimate Soho club and blew the roof off. Later, in 1980, "Buddy Rich Live At Ronnie's" became one of the orchestra's great recordings. So when Buddy's Buddies were offered a week's residency at Ronnie's (Monday, June 3 thru Saturday June 8, 2002) the chance to revisit history and make a live album was unmissable. Especially since both Marcus and Fusco were very much featured on the classic 1980 recording. Marcus offers, "Playing Ronnie Scott's with Buddy each year -- for twelve years consecutively -- was always a major event... great music and great memories. Coming back after sixteen years absence with this band was glorious."

But first, a brief update. Since the first Steve Smith and Buddy's Buddies CD was released in 1999 (Tone Center TC-40062) there's been a change of personnel. Smith says, "Since (bassist) Anthony Jackson and (pianist/arranger) Lee Musiker were not available for touring we asked Baron Browne and Mark Soskin to play with the band. We've been gigging occasionally for the past couple of years and they're exactly the type of players Buddy would have loved." Browne is of course Steve's long-time rhythm section cohort in Vital Information, while ex-Sonny Rollins pianist Soskin has taken over where Musiker left off, contributing new arrangements and compositions. Of this new recording, Smith says, "I'm very happy with the music. As it turned out we had enough material for two CDs so I left the sets intact, exactly as we played them on the gig. Then I added some 'bonus' material, tunes that we had very good alternate takes of." The recording is indeed superb. Every note is crystal clear, the instrumental balance faultless. And the music? Well, take a listen - you won't be disappointedů

Casting caution to the winds, the band opens with "Love For Sale," arguably the most swinging, dynamic, and melodic of Buddy's classics. Surely a quintet cannot do it justice? But of course they do. Mark Soskin's arrangement perfectly mirrors the big band's famous tour-de-force and within minutes the live audience is won over. By the time the band reaches the tempestuous shouting climax it's almost like the orchestra itself is in the room. Cheers greet Smith's take on Buddy's famous four-bar-dead-stop-single-stroke snare roll -- one of the great moments in big band drumming. After that you know you're in for a great night.

Keeping up the momentum, Horace Silver's "Nutville" sees tenor and alto horns in close harmony. Once more the band builds to a stunning climax. Smith's solo respectfully recreates some of Buddy's trademark licks, his crisp snare work underpinned by stabbing bass drum accents.

Now Andy Fusco steps up for his alto showcase, "Big Man's Blues," created for him by another Buddy alumnus, Walt Weiskopf. There's also space for a tingling soprano solo from Marcus. The dynamic drops for Soskin to build again with an explorative and angular workout, Smith's solo cuts across the piano and bass ostinato, controlled and confident. Next up is Soskin's "Bopformation," the sort of belter Buddy would have loved to get his teeth into. Soskin originally wrote the tune for the history section in Smith's Hudson Music DVD: "Drumset Technique and History of the U.S. Beat." Steve says, "The tune is so strong that the guys wanted to play it at Ronnie's so Mark whipped up a quick arrangement for the two horns." Then it's time for a breather with a ballad feature for Steve Marcus on the Michel Legrand song, "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?" Buddy accompanied Frank Sinatra on this tune during Sinatra's 1983 tour. Buddy loved playing ballads with brushes and Smith follows suit while Browne keeps the whole piece bubbling along.

The band leaves the stage as Smith treats us to his specialty hi hat and cymbal improvisation. Soloing on the cymbals was an eagerly anticipated feature of Buddy's live performances, but Steve takes it further, creating a show-stopping composition. Aurally it's a feast of subtle touch and timbre. Visually, the audience's gasps hint at the amazing juggling, stick tapping and twirling that Steve is constantly adding to with new tricks and ideas. My advice is to catch Steve live at the earliest opportunity.

Soskin and Browne return to the stage for another twist in the proceedings -- a piano trio featuring Soskin's composition, "Manfredo's Fest." The pianist shows off his love of Latin music with rhythmic invention and lithe runs, while there's plenty of space for Browne to shine with a spiky samba groove leading to a swooping, melodic bass solo treat. The set is shaping up nicely and the two frontline men return for the high energy closer, "Ya Gotta Try," which catapults off at a blistering tempo. There are testing arranged passages, which the twin saxes negotiate and the band underpins with alarming ease. Smith's playing recalls Buddy's miraculous, ever-moving left hand comping, his fantastic breaks and set-ups. The set climaxes with virtuoso exchanges on tenor and alto until both saxes blaze away in a controlled fury.

That's set one - a mixture of Rich favourites and a couple of original tunes given superlative performances by a band at its peak. But remember, there are two killer bonus tracks to enjoy - Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" and the stunning "Airegin."

Like the audience at Ronnie's you'll be left breathlessly awaiting the second set. Be sure to check out "Steve Smith and Buddy's Buddies -- Very Live At Ronnie Scott's -- Set Two."

-- 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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