Rescued from obscurity by Hudson Music, At the Top
was a one-hour '73 performance of Buddy Rich and the Buddy Rich Big Band originally broadcast on Public Television in the United States. While the audio quality is a touch muddy, symptomatic of the recording capabilities for television at the time, it serves as an outstanding document of Rich as bandleader, arranger and performer. Bold and brash, never short on ego, Rich led his big band like an army troop and the result was an ensemble where not a note was missed, not a beat dropped.
On a programme that includes some of his more popular pieces including "Norwegian Wood," the odd-signatured "Time Check," the swinging "Love for Sale" and arguably his most well-known arrangement, "West Side Story Medley," Rich demonstrates his remarkable ability to retain and recall complex charts without having to read them on the bandstand. His solos are the definition of power and authority; as wild as they get, Rich is never anything but in complete control. Whether executing staggering press rolls with rhythms pushed underneath, or delicate cymbal work, he always manages to keep things interesting. One of the added bonus tracks to the DVD is an unaccompanied drum solo from '84, one of his last performances, that is all the more remarkable for its maintaining a high level of excitement while demonstrating complete dynamic control for over seven minutes.
But the DVD is not just about Rich's drumming. Rich always recruited ace musicians, and this band is no exception. Heavily featured is New York State-born tenor saxophonist Pat Labarbera, who ultimately relocated to Canada after his seven-year stint with Rich. Other members of the band are equally capable, and turn in solo after strong solo. Still, always bubbling beneath the surface of the soloists is Rich himself, constantly pushing his players to extend themselves further; regardless of who is taking a solo it is clear who is in charge. And, growing up in Vaudeville as Rich did, it is clear that in live performance he is equal parts showman and player. Still, as visually captivating as he is to watch, the music never takes a back seat.
Supplementing the television performance and bonus drum solo feature are two additional bonuses. First, an interview with Buddy, around the time that he was voted into Downbeat's Hall of Fame, where he comes across as confident (perhaps overly so), entertaining and, while appreciative of the honour of the award, also remarkably untouched by it. The second piece is a short clip from the old "What's My Line" show from '74, where a blindfolded panel of four judges try to guess who he is. Both provide some insight into Buddy the person, and confirm that an artist's personality and their music are inextricably linked.
At the Top documents Rich and one of his many bands at peak prowess, highlighting his skills as both a player and arranger. Having rescued the big band from obscurity in the '60s, it shows an artist who, for all his bravado, was deeply committed to his craft, and strove to constantly improve and develop himself throughout the course of his fifty-year career.
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Track Listing: Love For Sale; Norwegian Wood; One for My Baby (comedy routine); Time Check; Basically Blues; Uncle Albert /Admiral Halsey; What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life; West Side Story Medley
Bonus Tracks: Drum Solo, May 1979; Mystery Guest on "What's My Line"; Interview from "The Mark of Jazz"; Drum Solo, 1984