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Bernard Purdie: Letting The Drums Speak

Ben Scholz By

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I’ve got some good people working with me. You’ve got to get folks that you trust. That’s been the biggest thing. That’s been the biggest part of this whole career. —Bernard Purdie
Known primarily for his half-century long career as a studio musician, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie is an icon in the recording industry. With a catalog of 3,000+ recordings including landmark albums such as Steely Dan's Aja Aretha Franklin's Young, Gifted and Black, Bobby King's Completely Well, and James Brown's It's a Man's Man's Man's World, Bernard Purdie is quite possibly the most influential studio drummer in history. Recently, Bernard paid a visit to Chicago to perform with veteran guitarist George Freeman. We caught up with him to talk about his Chicago jazz connections as well as his new book, Let the Drums Speak.

All About Jazz: People are familiar with your legendary body of studio recordings, however I'd like to discuss your work with the George Freeman 4tet, or as you put it, "Bernard Purdie and friends." How did this all come about?

Bernard Purdie: That's what it was last night, but 3 months ago it was the opposite—it was George Freeman, and I was a special guest for them.

AAJ: The shows you did at the Green Mill and the Tonic Room, are these the only times that you've performed with this line up?

BP: The only time I performed with those four guys, yes, but I had done things with George several times over the years. I hadn't seen him or worked together in a few years. We just picked up where we left off. That's what it felt like to us.

AAJ: Saxophonist Von Freeman (George's brother) was a real inspiration to a lot of musicians in Chicago. Did you ever have a chance to play with him?

BP: Yeah—I'm going back quite a few years. Yes! I sat in with him a couple of times.

AAJ: That leads to my next question—what do you feel when you play with George? Can you describe that connection?

BP: George has his own style. He's always had it, and if you REALLY want to play with him you've got to join him. He's a very forceful player and he wants what he wants and that's what he does. There's not a thing wrong with that. And people understand. He'll go along with the feel of the people. That's part of the job. He's been a front man for a long time and it's always good. He hasn't forgotten that.

AAJ: Do you have any plans to go into the studio with this group?

BP: That's what I'm discussing with Mike Allemana. I really like the idea of what we can do. The way it's going to be effective is to keep it simple and keep it focused. Go with the theme, whatever the theme is going to be, and that's what we do. We stay there. That's how I like to make records. You always have something thought out.

AAJ: That's very interesting. Do you have any more gigs lined up for this group in Chicago or elsewhere?

BP: ...just the recording and we have to find a time. And the time for me is not going to be before the fall or winter. I'm basically concentrating on the release of the book right now. Basically I'm booked for the next three or four months, every weekend. So, it's kind of hard just to step out of things. The last two or three months I have been focused on finishing the book, and I'm very happy.

AAJ: Can you talk about the book?

BP: Sure. The book is about me, my upbringing in Maryland and how I've focused on the things that I needed to do and all the people that helped me along the way. I'm just super pleased because this was a big job. The nicest part is that a third of the book is about my childhood, my upbringing. It lets people know where I'm coming from and why I wanted to focus on this instead of all the different artists that I've worked with. I've worked with twenty two hundred different artists. I know this, it was part of my research. So, yes, this was a major task, but the beauty of it is that I go along with so many different folks and I got to speak to them before so many of them passed on. It was a good thing for me. Staying focused with it was the hard part, because I still had to do a lot of work. I was still working as a player. But, I had three straight years, two days a week putting stuff down for the book. It gave me the foundation of where everything is and where I'm going to go. And I'm very pleased.

AAJ: When is the official release date?

BP: The actual release date is October. I just saw the cover last week and I'm making some changes. We now have 18 pages of pictures in the book. Fine details. That was the hardest part. Fine, fine details.

AAJ: Can you talk about some of the details?

BP: We had to make decisions. See, this is really not one book, it's really two books. Besides a bio it's a discography as well. That's why it was so hard for me. I had to go back over so many records, I had to research. I had to do a lot of details, and it had to be right. That really was the hard part.

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