The world is full of dreamers, but few of them have the boldness and tenacity to make their dreams come true. From the moment he heard a recording of the Buddy Rich big band in 1966, Swedish drummer Janne Ersson decided he would one day lead a band like that himself. After years of paying his dues, Ersson became disenchanted with the music business and took a job at the post office, working there for years until the branch was closed and he was laid off with two years’ salary in advance. The time had come, he knew, to realize his dream. Finding musicians in Sweden who were interested in the music “was easy,” he writes; “finding guys who could play [it] well was another thing.” After a few years of struggle, Ersson decided to hire someone to rehearse the ensemble, and “after a year of hard work the band finally started to swing.” It hasn’t stopped yet, thanks in large measure to Ersson’s superlative drumming. As it turns out, Janne not only studied Buddy Rich’s agile and assertive style, he practically memorized it.
Ersson’s band has been touring for four years now, and its second album was recorded live at the 2002 Stockholm Jazz Festival. From Allyn Ferguson’s flamboyant “Away We Go” to the closing medley from Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, everything is taken straight from the Buddy Rich library, which makes comparing the two bands rather easy.
On the whole, the Swedes play notably well as a unit, but they aren’t quite as tight as Buddy’s band, and there are one or two brief but audible missteps that would have incurred Buddy’s unbridled wrath. Ersson’s soloists are admirable—especially tenor saxophonist Eric Liftig and trumpeter Dan Warvne—but there’s no way they could stand toe-to-toe and trade licks with such heavyweights as Ernie Watts, Jay Corre, Bobby Shew, Ray Starling, Don Menza, Chuck Findley, Pete Yellin, Barry Zweig, Steve Marcus, John Bunch, Bob Mintzer, Pat LaBarbera, Bill Cunliffe or others in Buddy‘s band. Not to mention the great Art Pepper, whose torrid solos enkindled Rich’s album Mercy, Mercy.
Comparisons aside, Ersson has put together an impressive ensemble using Buddy’s blueprint for success—swing hard under any and all conditions—and has chosen an engaging program that includes two memorable compositions by Menza (“Time Check,” “Groovin’ Hard”), one each by Bob Florence (“Willowcrest”), John LaBarbera (“Pipe Dreams”) and Harry Betts (“Mexicali Nose”), and jazz standards by Duke Ellington (“In a Mellow Tone”) and Thelonious Monk (“’Round Midnight”), the last featuring Liftig’s tenor, as does the West Side Story medley. A second tenor, Björn Cedergren, is front and center on “Groovin’ Hard.”
While this isn’t (quite) Buddy Rich, as “ghost bands” go Ersson’s is sometimes so close to the original that it’s positively spooky, and his drumming throughout is almost as mind-blowing as Buddy’s, especially on West Side Story. “At last,” writes Ersson, “I have the band of my dreams and I think it sounds great. What more could you ask for?” Well, a few sales wouldn’t hurt. And believe me, Ersson’s album is well worth the price.