In my teen years I purchased the album Rich vs. Roach, where two of the greatest drummers of the 50’s-60’s played together with the same band. The highlight track for me was their drum battle “Figure Eights.” If you wish, listen below, and see who you prefer. Rich begins, with Roach following.
When I bought the album I had heard of Buddy Rich before, but had no idea who Max Roach was. I remember my early listens to this particular track. I thought Rich stole the battle hands down. I preferred his crisp, clear sound to Roach’s looser and lower drum tuning (and still usually do). But above all Rich’s speed and unequaled technique shone so strongly that I had no idea why Roach bothered to show up.
After several years, I finally listened to the track again. Maybe it’s middle age, or maybe it’s my passive-aggressive nature taking a pot-shot at my youth, but I hear their drumming differently now. Now Roach impresses me far more than he did previously. Now I hear Roach propelling the stylistic changes throughout the duet. Roach also varies his playing more than Rich, who tends to rely on pure speed to “get by.”
I have no desire to belittle Buddy Rich, who deserves his status as one of the great drummers of all time. But this piece made me realize that Rich has limitations to his greatness. He had immense energy that got all that could be humanly got out of the bands he led. And his speed, his speed, go beyond what seems humanly possible.
But while his speed and energy has deep penetration, his style also has a narrow bandwidth. For example, Rich approached the played drums like a sprinter in a race, and would never have looked sideways enough to come up with the rhythm Roach invents on this Bud Powell song.
Rich began his career as a young boy in vaudeville where all the gags had to be big and broad to connect with the audience. Rich never really seemed to get away from this “need” for the big finish, or the broadness of the musical stroke. In the 70’s, Rich’s bands moved away from the traditional big-band/jazz sound and towards funk. I very much admire his ability to change styles, but the music is desperately square, though sometimes delightfully so. It is Vaudeville Funk — entertaining, but . . . not funky.
Though I have never read a biography of Rich, perhaps he always remained a showman at heart. This meant that his greatness would only be a type of greatness, and he could not be the “Greatest” of all time, if such a title is possible to give out. Roach had the creativity Rich lacked, but did not possess Rich’s blaze of pure adrenaline.