XRIJF Day 3 – Charles Ruggiero “As Heard on TV”
After a day of two intense concerts in Eldar and the Arild Anderson Trio, it was an excellent and welcome change of pace to end my day with Charles Ruggiero. The show was 10pm at Max of Eastman Place, and I was very fortunate to be sitting with some new friends and fans that I had made that day. I’ve played Ruggiero’s record, “As Heard On TV” many times on Jazz 90.1, so I wanted to make sure that I saw him.
I actually got a little preview of the show and the man earlier in the day. He interviewed with 90.1’s Derrick Lucas, and I happened to be around, and I watched. Little did I know that Ruggiero is actually a Rochester native, and he sounded thrilled to make his homecoming; he would actually comment amusingly (or joke; none of us could tell how serious he was) that leaving Rochester was the biggest mistake he ever made. He discussed how he learned the drums and music, by playing along with rock and roll (he actually plays with hard rock band, SLUNT. Yes, you read that correctly), and said that he was “born to be a drummer.” I also had a lovely chat with him after the show, and despite his intense profile, Ruggiero is a warm, friendly, and funny guy. That made this performance more special.
There’s an inherent whimsy to putting on a record and then a promotional tour, he called it an “album cycle,” of jazz adaptations of famous TV themes. Some were more obvious choices than others; Bewitched, for example, which was on the record but not the setlist for the show. The less-obvious choices were the fun ones though.
The band, which consisted of Ruggiero, his longtime friend and collaborator pianist Jeremy Manasia, respected guitarist Peter Bernstein, and Rochester native Mike Karn on the bass, actually with Thelonius Monk’s “We See.” The straight-ahead sound allowed everyone to get in the groove, especially with a drum open from Ruggiero. Crisp and thoughtful solos from all, and it ended with Ruggiero soloing and doing something I think more drummer should do while soloing; he kept the hi-hat going on 2 and 4.
Following that, they began the “TV” material, opening with the theme to “Law and Order.” This less-than-obvious choice for jazz musicians got a laugh when the opening theme was stated, and it allowed for some nice development. The main lick was altered into a background/ groove, and the rest of the space Bernstein used for soloing and call and response. In a tune with few changes, this allowed for a lot of musical conversation and interplay.
Next came the theme to “Bugs Bunny,” which Ruggiero remarked required little work to arrange: “I mean, it is what it is.” The very brief head came with a cooking rhythm section, and got Ruggiero his mean face on with brushes in hand. I took particular note of how Karn effectively repeated his bass lines at the high tempo, and the trading off of solos with the piano, guitar, and drums was fun at the end.
Jackie Gleason’s “My Greatest Love” followed, with Ruggiero telling the story of him and Manasia getting a place during school, and WPIX was their go-to channel that played “The Honeymooners” at 11pm, which prompted them to pick this one for the album. Ruggiero opened with lush cymbal rolls, an exceptional example of his superb cymbal work he had going all night, with sticks and mallets. Going to the mallets proved to be a great choice, and Karn’s smooth and melodic solo was well-crafted and beautiful.
“How many of you are mad that you’re missing ‘Game of Thrones?'” was the next sound bite from Ruggiero following the ballad. He said that he was, and they took on the “Game of Thrones” theme, featuring the drums and bass “the Rochester part of this group.” They did a great job of adding introductory material so that when the main theme came in on guitar, there was a rush of recognition from the audience. There were unaccompanied bass and drum solos, and Ruggiero broke out the mallets again to create an arcane feel on the drums, complemented by more great cymbal work.
The final tune on the setlist was “Metamorphosis,” a composition by Bernstein that featured many unison and tutti licks from the whole band. But after that, Ruggiero said they had another one in them, and they uncorked some swinging blues in F for us.
Ruggiero was the reason to see the show, not just for his great comedic timing on the microphone, and his loose and fun setlist. Ruggiero is a rare combination of a drummer who both drives the bus in terms of rhythm, feel, and musically, but still allows the other musicians in his group to flourish and contribute to the jive he’s laid out for them.