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Buddy Rich: Argo, EmArcy and Verve Small Group Buddy Rich Sessions

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Buddy Rich was, among many other things, the quintessential big-band drummer: As he proved on countless bandstands over a half-century career, he could kick-start a horn section with pitch-perfect brawn and brio. But Rich also led plenty of small and midsize combos over the years. This box set chronicles a handful of them, from 1953 to 1961, and makes the case for Rich as a galvanizing drummer in any setting, as well as a gifted, if limited, ensemble leader.

This was a rather unsettled time in Rich’s career. He had already become a household name, more or less, by way of an association with producer Norman Granz. But he had yet to find success with a big band of his own; these sessions cover a period in which he marked time with the orchestras of Tommy Dorsey and Harry James, played Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic and took a crack at becoming a popular singer. That last struggle is especially well documented in John McDonough’s liner essay, which takes a warmly affectionate tone. McDonough may have played it too nice; to judge by the only vocal side included here-“Bongo, Bass and Guitar,” a song as smart as it sounds-it’s to the benefit of all involved that Rich was forced to keep his day job.

He was, after all, an astonishing drummer. That much is evident on the earliest material here, which drafts trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and a handful of others into what might best be described as an eight-piece little big band. A previously unheard alternate take of Johnny Mandel’s “Strike It Rich” features a blistering open-form drum coda that should leave even seasoned Richophiles agape; it’s fiercer and more cohesive than the version issued by Granz. Similar pleasures distinguish “The Monster,” a Rich original recorded in 1955; except that in that case, he’s nearly upstaged by the silvery technique of pianist Oscar Peterson, and evenly matched by trumpeters Thad Jones and Joe Newman, tenor saxophonists Ben Webster and Frank Wess, rhythm guitarist Freddie Green and bassist Ray Brown. If the lineup conjures visions of small-group Basie, you’ve got the right idea.

In fact, a later session included here would eventually produce a good album called This One’s for Basie, featuring Marty Paich’s arrangements for an 11-piece band. But first there was the matter of bebop, momentarily appearing in the personage of alto saxophonist Sonny Criss on a perfectly pleasant 1955 date that also includes Edison, pianist Jimmy Rowles and bassist John Simmons. Rich, never bop’s biggest fan, backs Criss’ choruses with competence but not much palpable enjoyment. Certainly he sounds much happier a couple years later in the company of tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, on a crackling live performance that Verve would later release as Buddy Rich in Miami.

Rich’s efforts to stay contemporary during this era had at least one happy consequence: the formation of a sleek ensemble featuring the vibraphone prodigy Mike Mainieri. The last three discs of this set document that group, which variously had six or seven members and enjoyed moderate commercial success. Its first date, for EmArcy, includes a couple of Ernie Wilkins tunes-“Astronaut” and “Miss Bessie’s Cookin'”-that probably should have caught on in modern jazz circles. On later sessions for Argo, the band sports a frontline of flute, vibes and piano, sounding positively Manciniesque.

An unreleased 1961 session comprises most of disc six and it’s fluff worth hearing, if only for Mainieri and flutist Sam Most. The proof of Rich’s commercial aim is evident not only in the group’s lightweight design, but also in his uncharacteristic self-effacement: He hardly breaks a sweat. Musically speaking, it’s both a blessing and a curse.