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Peter Erskine: Paging Dr. Um

R.J. DeLuke By

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"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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