Peter Erskine - A spell of fine weather
It’s like he never left. As the thirtieth anniversary approaches of Peter Erskine stepping down from the Weather Report drum riser for the last time, his loyalty to one of the most inspirational bands in the history of jazz remains as strong as ever.
Some five hundred albums have featured Erskine’s remarkable versatility since 1982 – from the Grammy award winning high energy sessions that produced the WDR Orchestra’s Some Skunk Funk tribute to the Brecker Brothers to the more sedate orchestrations of Joni Mitchell’s standards album, Both Sides Now. He’s worked with acoustic fusion pioneers Steps Ahead, in his own Bill Evans-style trio with English pianist John Taylor and even shared the percussion platform with Evelyn Glennie at the Proms as well as powering the re-formed, precision-tooled Steely Dan on tour. Get Erskine talking about his five years with Weather Report, however, and it won’t be a short conversation.
“It was a special time for me personally,” he says down the line from sunny California as he prepares to fly out to guest in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s upcoming celebration of Weather Report’s music. “But it was a special time to be involved in music generally. You know, I’d walk into CBS studios on 57th Street and feel the history. You’d see this piece of equipment and know that Miles Davis had recorded one of his classic albums on it or Thelonious Monk had played the piano, and you’d think, I’d better shape up and produce my best. I still feel that when I walk onto the soundstage at Warner Bros. or someplace like that but while this great democratisation that has allowed us all to make recordings much more easily is great in some ways, you don’t feel quite the same sense of expectation when you walk into some guy’s home studio that he’s made out of his second bedroom.”
Erskine’s invitation to sit in the hot seat that was the Weather Report drum stool – many top players had been called and not measured up to the demands over the years – came thanks to the band’s star bass guitarist of the time, Jaco Pastorius. The band had just finished recording what would become one of its biggest selling albums, Heavy Weather, when Erskine fetched up in Pastorius’ hometown, Miami, with the Maynard Ferguson band.
“One of our trumpet players, Ron Tooley, had played on Jaco’s first solo album and he called Jaco up, expecting to get his answering machine, to ask him if he fancied coming to the gig,” says Erskine. “Jaco was actually at home and said he’d seen Maynard’s band last time and was going to pass until Ron said he might like to hear the band’s new drummer. So Jaco came to the gig, we hung out a bit and at the end of the night he said, I’m going to be calling you. I thought, yeah, right, but apparently the drummer on Heavy Weather, Alex Acuna, was about to leave Weather Report.”
When Pastorius proved as good as his word, Erskine was on tour with Ferguson and couldn’t make the first day of recording for Heavy Weather’s follow-up, Mr Gone. He thought he might have missed his chance to join his dream band. But Pastorius persisted and on the eve of a Japanese tour, Erskine was co-opted without the band’s founders and co-leaders, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter having heard him play on a gig.
“We did this press conference before the first gig and a journalist asked me how playing with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and Maynard Ferguson’s big band qualified me to play with Weather Report,” says Erskine. “And before I could answer, Joe took the mic and said, Weather Report is a big band – and we’re a small group too. And that’s the way they looked at it, especially as Joe got more and more into the polyphonic synthesiser thing. He was arranging the keyboards as if they were horn sections, in a way, and adding these textures behind’s Wayne’s saxophone that was very orchestral. I actually felt that Joe and Wayne took me on trust because I’d played with Kenton and Maynard – they’d both played with Maynard too – and the reckoned that if I could handle the rigours of big band life and touring for fifty weeks of the year, as I did with Kenton, I’d be able to handle the Weather Report gig.”
Although it produced five successful albums, including the Grammy-winning 8.30, and hundreds of high-inducing gigs, Erskine’s tenure with the band wasn’t without its challenges. Pastorius, who would later descend into a hell of drugs, manic depression and an early death at the hands of an overzealous bouncer, was both an ultra-creative blessing and a one-man awkward squad, and after a honeymoon period with Zawinul, the gig post mortems and daily drum lessons became hard to take. Erskine could have been lounging on a beach with his girlfriend and saved himself the grief but he realised that, quite simply, Shorter and Zawinul knew more about what they were doing than he did. So he stuck it out and doesn’t regret a minute of his experience.
“I loved my time in the band and I think one of the reasons why the whole Scottish National Jazz Orchestra plays Weather Report project is so great is that it’s celebrating really special music,” he says. “It’s not just chucking a few tunes together and bringing me over because I happen to be available. Tommy [Smith, SNJO’s director] and I have gone over the repertoire and agreed on who should arrange what number and we’re including, I think, the best percussionist in Europe, Marcio Doctor. It’s music that was conceived by a quartet – or at least it was during most of my time in the band – but lends itself naturally to the big band setting, and I’m really excited about playing it.”
As to what his former colleagues, only one of whom, Shorter, is still around, would have made of the SNJO project, Erskine thinks they would have approved also.
“Jaco loved big band music, as witness his Word of Mouth Orchestra, and Joe was a huge Duke Ellington fan, which is where I think a lot of his orchestration ideas came from,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about them a lot recently and they both gave me some great advice. Jaco’s was: don’t think so much, just concentrate, by which he meant if you listen to what’s happening around you, you’ll fit in better, and Joe’s philosophy was that you should always compose when you play. I don’t see Wayne that often but the last time we met, he was about to play a concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and after I looked into his dressing room, he called me back and said “big bands”. Wayne was always kind of enigmatic but in his own way, I like to think that he was given these concerts his blessing.”
From The Herald, February 15, 2012.
Peter Erskine - Wiping Blood off the Floor
Peter Erskine is talking about the ‘wincing’ effect seeing a drum kit being set up amidst an orchestra can have on orchestral players.
Erskine - best known for his work in jazz with major bands Weather Report and Steps Ahead and for records with Steely Dan, Diana Krall and Chick Corea - has been a powerhouse in his time.
His rhythms on Weather Report’s 8.30 live album, for example, have the forward momentum of a steam train. He was also responsible, however, for the brilliantly restrained drum presence on Joni Mitchell’s visit to the great American songbook, Both Sides Now.
So earplugs won’t be necessary for members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra when Erskine plays drums on Mark Anthony Turnage’s Blood on the Floor and Scorched on a rare trip to Scotland that also includes a trio date in Perth with guitarist John Scofield and bassist John Patitucci.
"The way the drum parts are written and the way I play on these Turnage pieces usually defies the string players’ expectations," he says. "They see the drum kit and you can sense them going, Oh no. But I’ve worked with the LA Phil, who are probably more used to having drummers come in, and the Berlin and City of Birmingham Phils and, yeah, you can see them actually taking the earplugs out after a little while."
Erskine has actually been responsible for developing the drum parts on the Turnage pieces and has made the drum stool virtually his own whenever and wherever they are performed. He and the composer met when Erskine was touring England with former Steps Ahead colleague and pianist, the late Don Grolnick’s band.
"A friend of mine, Nick Purnell, who’s one of these guys who makes things happen jazzwise in England, introduced us. Mark Anthony, it turned out, was a big fan of Weather Report and he showed me the drum part he’d written for Blood on the Floor. Oftentimes what happens when a non-drummer notates music for a drummer is that it’s non-drummical, if that’s a word. They’re too fussy and there’s no room to breathe."
Erskine, who is classically trained and worked with jazz orchestras including the Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson bands before joining Weather Report, suggested that Turnage write in accents and phrases that he really wanted the drummer to know about. The rest, he felt, could be left to the drummer to arrive at his own conclusions.
"I sent him parts I’d worked on before and said, This is how jazz orchestras do it, some rhythms are set, others are optional, and when we actually came to work on it we left it so that I’m able to interpret it fresh every time. He gave me wiggle room, if you like. Besides, if truth be told, it’s much less of a pain in the ass not having to read all that stuff."
Erskine’s way worked. When the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performed Blood on the Floor during Simon Rattle’s first few weeks on the podium over there, it caused pandemonium – in the good sense – among the audience.
"We had to take nine or ten curtain calls," says Erskine, "and Simon, who’d admitted he was taking a risk beforehand, was saying, ‘This is not the Berlin I thought it would be.’ He also told me that he was just following me rather than conducting, which had a certain appeal. In fact, I think that’s why we become drummers – because we like to drive the bus."
Erskine has been driving the bus since he was four. His father fashioned a drum kit out of a conga drum, a Chinese tom-tom, whose skin was held in place with thumb tacks, and a cymbal, and the youngster, playing along to records, quickly showed enough promise to be offered lessons.
"I think it says a great deal about my family, my brother and sisters as well as dad, that they not only tolerated me practising at six in the morning before I went to school, they encouraged me too," he says. "I’d set up the living room to look like an orchestra, send away for scores and sit there thrashing away."
In his teens he attended and graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. By eighteen he was on the road with Stan Kenton – one of his first gigs was in Scotland which, with a name like Erskine, thrilled him no end.
An even bigger thrill came when his friend, bass guitar genius Jaco Pastorius, recommended him for the Weather Report job, a gig Erskine initially turned down.
"They were just starting to record the Mr Gone album and I was working with Maynard Ferguson and couldn’t get away for more than a day or two," he says. "The weather report – ironically – wasn’t great and I didn’t want to risk getting stranded in LA when I had a tour to rejoin. And apart from everything else, I wasn’t that experienced in the studio back then and didn’t feel I would do the job justice in the time we had. So I politely declined."
Fortunately, Pastorius was persistent and Erskine got another chance, which he grabbed with gusto and wound up playing in what, for many people at the time, was the best band on the planet.
"I pinched myself a lot – you know, is this really happening? - in those days because I was a Weather Report fan even before the band even formed. I’d loved Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter since I was a kid and Jaco was just phenomenal. It always seemed to me that they were sending postcards from the future."
Whether it sends postcards from the future is still Erskine’s yardstick for judging music. He hopes that his own band, The Lounge Art Ensemble, which tours Europe after Erskine’s Scottish dates, does it.
"Turnage’s music certainly does it for me and John Scofield definitely does it," he says. "I’m really looking forward to playing both styles of music that we’ve got lined up, and working with eighty people’s not really that different from working with three, to be honest. As you’re playing, you’re really just looking for the musical horizon and to create a pleasing arc – trying to make it feel good for everyone."
From The Herald, Wednesday, February 1, 2006