Peter Erskine: Paging Dr. Um

R.J. DeLuke By

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Jaco [Pastorious] took a real chance... He heard something in my back beat that was comfortable for him.
—Peter Erskine
There's not much ground drummer Peter Erskine hasn't covered.

He's said to have appeared on more than 600 albums. He has won two Grammys and holds an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music. He's been a part of the big bands of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson, and has played with the likes of Steps Ahead, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Diana Krall, the Brecker Brothers, John Abercrombie, Bob Mintzer, Eliane Elias and many more. Then there's the iconic Weather Report band, for which he is the longest tenured drummer, playing during the period that included bass legend Jaco Pastorius.

But upon the release of his latest recording, Dr. Um and the Lost Pages on his own Fuzzy Music label, the 61-year-old Erskine calls the Weather Report-influenced disk "a fun proclamation. A way of clearing a pathway for me to move on to other things."

Erskine, an open and warm man with a captivating spirit, is sure to open other doors. He has a skeleton key for that kind of thing.

He says during the last year or so Weather Report again became a big factor in his life. He did interviews for the Pastorius documentary, Jaco, and provided photographs. He also produced the 4-CD compilation Weather Report: The Legendary Live Tapes (Legacy Recordings, 2015). He had to go through cassette tapes that were recorded over many years. Then they had to be digitized and put into database. "Listening to everything. Selecting various performances, then going through all the trials and tribulations of getting that released" occupied a lot of time.

"I think it made a lot of Weather Report fans happy. That was gratifying. In a way this record (Dr. Um) was inspired by that, but it also provided an opportunity for me to pay homage, pay my respects. Say thank you, and move on."

The drummer says he got to play the tunes the way he wanted to, so they can be heard and enjoyed, but with some modern interpretation. It was the first time he was able to record "Speechless," a Joe Zawinul tune, for example. He had fun bringing some of those old tunes back to life. It is an engaging collection of music that includes originals by the drummer and by pianist John Beasley, as well as a Vince Mendoza selection and even a composition by Gustav Mahler. It has vestiges of Weather Report and Steps Ahead, but draws from other colors on Erskine's broad palette.

He says the players selected for the outing are not people he has played a lot with, but in the case of keyboardist Beasley, "I felt he was the one," as with bassist Janek Gwizdala. When Beasley "plays a Fender Rhodes, he plays it like a Fender Rhodes," says Erskine. "When he plays a Wurlitzer electric piano, he plays it like a Wurlitzer. Those are two different things... He plays the sound that is supposed to be."

"It's something I've been wanting to do for a while—something where I was playing more drums. I had taken what I've come to term 'the anti-drumming approach' about as far as I could, playing softly, playing very sparsely. All to a good musical end, particularly piano trios, ECM projects or a bunch of things I've done out here in Los Angeles with Alan Pasqua." Dr. Um allowed Erskine the drummer to reach into his musical bag and grab other things contained therein.

He's always had a varied musical bag. He played on a Patrick Williams big band album, Home Suite Home(BFM Jazz), that was nominated for a Grammy in 2016. "It was so much fun to play that stuff. I love big band stuff. I work a lot with Seth McFarlane [creator of the "Family Guy" animated comedy series, who also likes to croon in concert halls in his spare time]. I'm his drummer whenever he does these gigs with symphonies. A lot of the great Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins charts. Billy Mays. It's great fun and I like stepping into that suit, as it were, and being as authentic as possible."

Erskine's musical journey started early, taking drum lessons at the age of five. His father, a psychiatrist, was also a bassist who helped work his way through college by playing in bands. But of four siblings, Peter was the only one who has aspirations to become a jazz musician. He knew he was headed to a career in music "since I was 5 years old. My folks took me to a Broadway play. I looked out in that orchestra pit and that was it. I knew that was for me."

He went to a Stan Kenton band camp at age seven, where he met people like Keith Jarrett, Don Grolnick, Jim McNeely, David Sanborn andRandy Brecker, contacts and friendships he's held for decades. He spent a lot of time listening to records, memorizing the notes and melodies from repeated listening. There were live shows where he got to see the likes of Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and Louie Bellson.

In grade school, he played an Oliver Nelson album for a friend and one particular passage gave Peter goosebumps. "I said, 'Hey, did you feel that?' He said, 'Feel what?" I lifted the needle and put it back to hear that part again and I got goosebumps again." That had a profound impact on his bond with music. He also learned that not every part of music effects everyone the same way. As he grew, he lost the idea of trying to impress everyone, but rather: play good music that pleases the musicians.

Erskine graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and studied at Indiana University. In 1972, he got his first professional gig with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Four years later, he joined Maynard Ferguson. This was before the Weather Report years.

It was Pastorius who was the key to landing the drum chair in the legendary band. Erskine was playing drums with Ferguson when the bassist was coaxed in to coming to hear the orchestra. "One of the trumpet players in the band had played on Jaco's first album. He invited him to the show. Jaco said, 'That's OK. I saw you guys the first time you were in town.' The trumpet player said, 'Hey man. We got a new drummer. You might want to check this guy out.' Jaco said, 'I'll see you.'" He showed up and dug what he heard."

Erskine recalls, "Jaco was a little bit on a mission, because he knew that drummer Alex Acuña was planning on leaving [Weather Report]. So they asked me to join. My first rehearsal was pretty much an audition. They were pretty much stuck with me to go to Japan. They needed a drummer for the tour. I'd done my homework. The first rehearsal became this impromptu medley for about 45 minutes. Joe, Wayne and Jaco were high-fiving afterward. Joe said, 'We don't need to rehearse tomorrow. We'll just take some [publicity] photos.' By the end of the Japan tour, which included a tour of Australia, I was in the band for good. If nothing else, I set a record for being the drummer who was in the band the longest."

It surely wasn't "nothing else." Erskine was young, the music fresh and it was all new. He relished in it. He excelled. "You approached the music as a musician, not just as a drummer." But he says he doesn't know if Shorter or Zawinul would have hired him if they had first heard him with Ferguson, playing that style. A comedic moment happened early on during a tour when a fan approached the band for autographs. "So, Zawinul signs his name. Wayne. Jaco. And I signed my name and underneath I wrote, 'drums.' Zawinul said, "Who the hell else would be playing drums? Of course you're the drummer. Don't ever do that again.'"

"Jaco took a real chance" bringing Erskine to the group, says the drummer. "I had the large ensemble experience. He heard something in my back beat that was comfortable for him. He heard something in my back beat that was comfortable for him. I realized later that my playing was quite similar to a drummer he played with in the C.C. Riders, the Wayne Cochran band—this guy Allyn Robinson, who's still playing down in New Orleans. I was listening to some bootleg tape, some gig with CC Riders. And when I heard Allyn, I said, 'Wow. That backbeat sounds a lot like mine.' I feel like I've been influenced listening to Allyn."

"We all really enjoyed working and traveling together," he recalls of the Weather Report period. "Whenever the going got tough—sure I was tempted a few times to say, 'Who needs this,' and just go home—I always would remember that these guys know more about this stuff than I do. So I should hang around and learn. It was a great learning experience and it opened just about every door that followed. Now there are several generations of young musicians and drummers that have never heard Weather Report. Dr. Um is one way to say, 'This is kind of like the way it was, but playing stuff with today's sensibilities; today's sounds."

"Wayne and I are the only two guys left of the quartet," he says without melancholy. "Wayne's making brilliant music, but it's not a whole lot like the Weather Report thing. [Dr. Um] was fun, to enter that world, get into that universe again, that way of creating the tunes. Not everything on that album sounds like Weather Report. It wasn't meant to. Enough of it does. There's one tune that sounds more like the Crusaders than Weather Report. It's stuff that was all part of my musical growing up in the late '60s and early '70s. It might just be my imagination or my experience—because when you're that age, music makes such a strong impression—but it's really good stuff... This record has cleared my plate, cleared my palate, cleared my mind. I kind of had to get this stuff out of my system."

Erskine, who has been in Los Angeles for some 30 years, moved on quite well after Weather Report, with whom he recorded five albums including the Grammy-winning 8:30. He's worked with Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea and more. The band Steps Ahead, with Michael Brecker, Mike Mainieri, Eddie Gomez and Eliane Elias was a highlight, as was the Abercrombie trio and the band Bass Desires with John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Marc Johnson. "I did a number of ECM albums, with Miroslav Vitous, Jan Garbarek and Gary Peacock. Kenny Wheeler. I did four under my own name with the late great John Taylor on piano and Palle Danielsson. I did a dozen albums for ECM."

"Then I started doing my own thing. That's when I decided to start my own label. I did it out of frustration, because things just moved too slowly in Europe. And I wanted to try some things that they weren't interested in. When I began playing in Weather Report and what I tried to apply in Steps Ahead finally all settled down and made sense once I was working with a number of different ECM artists." Landing in California resulted in "re-discovering my sense of good old-fashioned swing. I started marrying everything together."

To play with than kind of an array or artists, and that broad a range of genres, takes a sharp musician. Erskine, through his vast experience, knows the approach.

"I'll do my homework. If you're with a vocalist, you don't want to be like a bull in a china shop. You have to mark time very carefully. You don't play things that will obscure any of the words. When I did the Joni Mitchell album with the orchestra, the Both Sides Now album (2000, Reprise), we weren't working with a click track or metronome. So I was responsible for keeping the tempo conductor and arranger Vince Mendoza wanted. A 60-piece orchestra is a pretty large boat to steer. You have to be clever, where you put those tempo reminders. When I did Steely Dan, which was a whole other bag, I approached it like a repertory gig. I really studied the drumming of Jeff Porcaro and Bernard Purdie, Rick Marotta and Steve Gadd. All the different drummers who had played on those albums. I tried to get into the mind and rhythm set. It was fun. But that's not really my thing."

He also works on the television show "Galavant," on ABC. It's a comedic show with song-and-dance numbers. "Alan Menken wrote all the songs. One might be a calypso, one might be a polka, once might be a big band thing, one might be a disco tune. I love the variety. Everyone in the orchestra loves doing the show, because it's just so interesting. We do it and move on to something else. It's fun. I love sight reading. I love the challenge of being in the studio. I love the feeling off walking out and everyone's got a smile on their face."

"Sometimes I'm very happy to serve the music and meet it on its own terms and be more or less anonymous... If it's an improvised or jazz thing, what you see is what you get. You bring in improvisers; you have to let them improvise. If somebody tries to control that, they're just not going to be happy with the results. It's what we do. You have to let us do what we do. The important thing in an improvised setting is that a musician needs to be able to discover the music on their own. I worked for someone who thought they wanted jazz on an album. Then... ehhhh... It all came out so-so. I've worked with pop singers who decide they want to sing standards. It's not really their cup of tea. The whole thing's neither here or there. No more though. I'm not going to lose sleep not doing that kind of stuff."

One of his best experiences with a vocalist was not with a jazz singer, he says. It was Mary Chapin Carpenter on the album Songs From the Movie (2014, Zoe/Rounder Records), with arrangements by Mendoza. "Beautiful songs. Gorgeous lyrics. Her delivery. Her singing is fantastic. Vince Mendoza wrote the arrangements. I feel very at home doing folk stuff like that. She doesn't try to be a jazz singer. She's not. She's not interested in it."

As for the future, "Maybe 'Dr. Um on Broadway,'" he says with a laugh. But perhaps not kidding. "There are some wonderful tunes that were written for a number of Broadway shows, some of which I would love to play so people can hear them. Things I don't hear people playing."

"I have another album in the can that's pretty great," he says. "We do a version of the old pop tune 'Sukiyaki' that I think is very cool. That album might be the next one. I did it a few months after Dr. Um."

He's also busy developing professional play-along apps for young musicians. "We just came out with a big band app of Bob Mintzer's music. Most apps have music-minus drums, bass, lead trumpet, maybe sax. This has 17 music-minus track options. It's a very fun thing and I'm putting a lot of energy into that."

Rest assured Erskine's energy, whatever it's being put into, will yield outstanding results.

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