Peter Erskine: Paging Dr. Um

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."
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