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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."


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