Take a look at any list of the world’s greatest drummers, and Peter Erskine’s name will invariably be near the top. For more than four decades, Erskine has proven among the most consistently innovative and reliable masters of his instrument. He’s appeared on over 600 albums and film scores, more than 50 of those albums as leader or co-leader. He’s collaborated with an astonishing list of giants including the Stan Kenton
and Maynard Ferguson
big bands, Weather Report
, Steps Ahead
, Joni Mitchell
, Steely Dan
, Diana Krall
, Kenny Wheeler
, the Brecker Brothers, Yellowjackets
, Pat Metheny
and Gary Burton
, and John Scofield
. He has won two Grammy Awards, plus an Honorary Doctorate from the Berklee School of Music.
As if that’s not enough, he’s also a producer, author—his latest book, No Beethoven
, is an autobiography and chronicle of Weather Report—as well as educator, presently serving as Professor of Practice and Director of Drum set Studies at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California.
But in recent years, Erskine feels, he’s strayed from his true love, fusion and R&B drumming. Dr. Um
(Fuzzy Music, release date January 22, 2016), which Erskine self-produced, marks the world-class musician and composer’s return to “the kind of drumming I was best-known for in my youth and during my years with Weather Report and Steps Ahead.” He elaborates: “I’d traveled my ‘anti-drumming’ path of recent years about as far as I could take it—exquisite music where ‘less’ was so much ‘more’—the minimalism of my ECM and Fuzzy Music trio recording years had become my calling card. So the chance to play this way again feels very fresh and new to me. It’s being able to live the ‘if I knew then what I know now’ dream and make some really cool music at the same time. I feel inspired, like a kid, only one who’s got something to say.”
Indeed, Dr. Um
—the title a very cool play on words—feels like a return, yet at the same time there’s nothing retro about it. Recorded and mixed by Talley Sherwood at Tritone Recording Glendale, California, the collection—10 songs and two spoken-word pieces—finds Erskine, along with keyboardist John Beasley
(who co-produced the album) and electric bassist Janek Gwizdala
, plus several special guests, taking the classic fusion sound into the 21st century. The original concept for the album, however, stretches further back.
“Jack Fletcher is my oldest and closest friend,” says Erskine. Fletcher, a theater director who does voice directing for animation and film, wrote the liner notes for Dr. Um
. “Jack envisioned an evening of music and lights and sets with a musical host, an alter ego who might allow me to discover my true musical and theatrical roots. I had no aim to take such a production on the road as it seemed so ambitious, and besides, I was learning how to play less and less, so did I really want to put a spotlight on all of that? ‘Dr. Um’ began to stand for the ephemeral ‘me’ that was out of reach. Would I ever step into that outfit? 2015 became the year in which to do it. I knew that I finally wanted to give voice to Dr. Um
Erskine “felt the ‘doctor’ rising within me” and began to envision a new recording featuring “the kind of record that I’ve wanted to make for years, the kind of album Weather Report might have made were the band still around (and I was still in it).”
When it came time to choose his collaborators, Erskine “knew John Beasley was great, but I didn’t really know how great he was until he sat down at the piano in my studio. And Janek Gwizdala is, in my opinion, the most talented bassist to have come along since Jaco. It’s not just the chops. It’s the sound and the ideas and the bass discipline that only the best bassists know.”Dr. Um
begins with “You’re next,” a brief sonic montage that segues seamlessly into “Lost Page,” composed by Beasley. Erskine calls it “the kind of sophisti-funk tune I loved to listen to in the 1970s.” It’s followed by “Hawaii Bathing Suit,” a tune that Erskine had twice tried to bring to life earlier and which finally finds its way to an album here. “Borges Buenos Aires” has its roots in Erskine’s Weather Report days, and precedes “Little Fun K,” which Erskine compares to the classic fusion band Stuff; it features guitar from Jeff Parker. “Mahler” is a tribute to great Austrian classical composer, based on music that goes all the way back to 1901. “Recording jazz versions of classical music has long been a fancy of mine, and it’s almost become a conceit,” says Erskine. “But such gorgeous music! It takes a lot of heart as well as nerve to lay one’s playing so open to such long melodic lines. Beasley and Gwizdala are the perfect foils for this, and I only need to sit back and play some brushes. The short opening speech, spoken by Jack Fletcher, is from Hamlet. The song is from heaven.”
“Sage Hands” is borrowed from the late, under-appreciated jazz composer and vibraphonist Gary McFarland, and “Okraphilia,” which, say Erskine, “owes its Crusaders vibe and sound to John Beasley’s Wurlitzer electric piano and his own Texas roots,” follows. “Speechless” is reprised from the final Weather Report album Erskine made with Pastorius. “The original is terrific, but I’m pretty proud and knocked out by this passionate version,” he says. Vince Mendoza sent “Sprite” for the band to play; it was originally performed by several soprano saxophones playing the melody at a faster tempo. “We take the cool approach because, after all, we are a West Coast band,” says Erskine. The album’s final tune, “Northern Cross,” was actually the first recorded for the set but fit better at the end. Finally, there’s “You awake,” another brief spoken word piece that brings the Dr. Um
saga full circle.
is an album that was fun to make, and I hope that it’s fun for people to listen to,” says Erskine. “I think that it represents my best work in ages. Much of it has to do with my instrument—my drums and cymbals and percussions all feel like me. This music feels like me. I’m playing on a new Tama STAR kit, and this drum set has freed me from any technical limitations or sound constraints I might have felt in the past. Between the tunes and the other musicians and the sound we were getting, it was the most enjoyable two days in a recording studio that I can remember. As new as each tune sounded upon its first playing, everything felt so much at home. It’s the album that my father, Frederick Adams Erskine—who was a real doctor—always wanted me to make. And it turns out to be the album that I’ve always wanted to make, too.”