The concept of jazz drummer as a band leader often conjures images of a conspicuous, flashy stick wielder, largely placed in the forefront of the song, as a sometimes ostentatious reminder of whose name appears in the biggest font on the album’s cover.
Peter Erskine was none of that performing as leader of Dr. Um (a slight remixing of the word “drum”), presented by the Jazz Bakery on Friday, May 12 at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica. The longtime Los Angeles area-based jazz drummer offered a subtle yet firm approach to the ride, swish, snare, or hats. He showed that driving a band can manifest in various guises, sans the pointless posturing. Erskine never played too much, and in certain instances was barely playing much at all — this was made more mystifying because not only was he keeping deftly delicate time, but concurrently undergirding an entire composition.
Such dynamic feats were well enabled by a resoundingly competent band, featuring John Beasley on an assortment of keys ranging from synths to a Fender Rhodes to a Steinway grand, Benjamin Shepherd on fretted and fretless electric basses, and Bob Sheppard on tenor and sometimes soprano saxes.
Songs of the night included opener “Lost Page,” “Hawaii Bathing Suit” (Erskine punted the blame of its unusual moniker to his children), “11:11,” plus cuts composed by Vince Mendoza (“Sprite”) and the Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul (“Speechless”), some of which appear on his latest Dr. Um release, the Grammy-nominated “Second Opinion,” released in February on Fuzzy Music. Another tune was titled “Solar Steps,” which Erskine said was named as a hybrid of Miles Davis’ “Solar” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” It was difficult to discern elements of either classic jazz head in the lead line, but it was nonetheless a captivating composition.
When it was his turn to solo, which he appropriately indulged in nearly every song, Erskine delivered, upping the ante with several artistically tense moments as he danced around the form and meter via both disciplined rudiments and unpredictable patterns. It was almost as if another drummer accepted the throne during these improv bouts — alas, it was quite clearly, classic Erskine.
If there was a hiccup at the otherwise spectacular show, it was that Dr. Um peaked little early, giving away their most powerful song third from the end (with a luscious, Jaco Pastorius-inspired solo by Shepherd), relinquishing that true grand finale. Erskine had to explain to the audience that although the song had a smashing resolution (and received a standing ovation), the ensemble still had two more pieces on the set list. While the final pair of numbers were totally solid, they didn’t quite equal the former’s intensity.
Incredibly enough, the band’s jack-of-all-trades set — ranging from Latin pulses and funky grooves to wispy balladry and straight-ahead swing (albeit with a contemporary flair) — was not a master of none. Rather, it was Dr. Um’s prescription on how to nail an entire spectrum of modern jazz into a succinct 90 minutes. By the sound of things, and gauging the nearly sold-out audience’s reaction to the night, there certainly was no “second opinion” needed here.
Wal is the host of KSPC’s weekend jazz radio show “Bop, Drop & Roll,” airing Saturdays, 3-5 p.m. “No ballads, no big bands, no vocals.”