Dave Weckl joins Barker-led big band for Buddy Rich tribute at London’s Royal College of Music

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Dave Weckl was a devoted Buddy Rich disciple long before he stole the show playing ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ and ‘Bugle Call’ at a LA-staged memorial bash celebrating his hero in 1989. Magazines were running interviews where the skilful young drummer professed to meeting his hero, regularly catching him live, and even slowing down Rich’s records to half speed at home to nail all the insane licks. “I drove my dad nuts learning that stuff”, Weckl recalls, now 56, dusted with a distinct white goatee and taking questions from the floor in the lavish basement theatre of the RCM. He’s appearing here as a special guest of the college, the main draw of their one-day percussion festival that’ll not only present a rare clinic set from the St. Louis-born drum marvel, but also a special salute to his long-time idol, a set that will see him sit in with students of the RCM Big Band, performing a set of Buddy classics under the direction of conductor and trumpeter, Guy Barker.

Ahead of the main show, though, crammed into a busy timetable of timpani and drum-line performances, cajón master-classes, a session on soundtracks and some hard bop in the bar, Weckl spoke to UK drum promoter Mike Dolbear, who quizzed him about various aspects of his near-30-year pro career. The chat eventually eased into clinic mode with Weckl now centre-stage, fixed behind a beautifully-lit kit and dissecting such topics as timing, practice and his approach to feel. Every point discussed was also expertly demoed around the drums, often over whistles and loud cheers from an awestruck audience completely glued to his every move. This informative hour also included a funky sequenced track, ‘Get To It’, over which Weckl displayed (and displaced) some stunning breaks and beats, before closing with an equally-rousing open solo that flipped fluently between double kick-rumbling rock grooves, martial snare tattoos and cowbell-clattering samba patterns with equal aplomb.  

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Come the concert, and with the fireworks of the afternoon set still resounding in the ears of all, Weckl, Barker and the 18-strong band were welcomed to the stage, and to an early ovation which Guy let die down before easing the evening in with Ellington's ‘In a Mellow Tone’. Brassy and sassy, the tune’s seductive melody, trickling with light piano and a propulsive walking line, at once filled the room, surging into a heavier chorus section with a high-register solo from trumpeter Tom Griffiths. This was trailed by a more hard-driven ‘Nutville’ to which Weckl added a seductive, swinging latin figure. The persistent ting of his ride cymbal chilmed over a busy kit groove, prompting horns to blow with more vigour, in particular that of tenorist Azura Ono, whose broad, impassioned solo sailed to the back of the room, slicing through shrill trumpets and raspy trombones still carrying the theme.

Out of Weckl’s first, and arguably best, solo of the night, came a breezy ‘Basically Blues’ tapped along with soft quarter notes on ride, punctuated with light snare and the occasional bomb of bass drum. Pianist Sergei Istratis found gaps in the groove to plant rich bluesy chords or complement fluid jazzy runs from electric guitarist Toby Morgan, a lyrical player whose light, finger-picked style would feature more solidly over waltzer ‘Willowcrest’, and a funky ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’. As he last did in LA all those years ago, Weckl once more made the latter cut his own, refreshing the same snappy, syncopated beat and darting solo he had brought to the arrangement. But while most drummers in attendance would relish the opportunity of watching Weckl deliver hot licks and solos like this in a swing setting, there was much magic to be heard in his tight, effortless phrasing. Whether at full pelt, doubling scissor-sharp sax lines during Sam Nestico’s ‘Ya Gotta Try’ or sweeping a lush brush part under Strayhorn’s silky ‘Chelsea Bridge’, his attention to detail and dedication to the music was worth all the applause.

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During a reading of Cole Porter’s ‘Love for Sale’, Weckl even recreated one of Rich’s infamous breaks over some fours. From a rattle of toms, a short, crisp snare roll abruptly stopped dead, leaving a single thump of bass drum to fill the moment’s silence, cueing back in the band to blow their last screamy note. One last encore, ‘Time Check’, gave Barker the opportunity to break out his horn, ramping up the intensity, leaping registers, and adding extra thrill to all the low-end honks and squealing highs. It was a fitting end to a turbo-charged set from a brilliant band that royally honoured Rich – a show that naturally belonged to Weckl, nearly 30 years on and still a bona fide exponent of Buddy Rich, his drumming and all that dazzling showmanship.

       Mark Youll

Photos by Jon Frost