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Friday, August 17, 2007

Max Roach (1924-2007)

Maxwell Roach, January 10, 1924 - August 16, 2007

Some background reading on the era and the civil rights movement:

:: New York Times obituary ::

August 16, 2007
Max Roach, a Founder of Modern Jazz, Dies at 83

Max Roach, a founder of modern jazz who rewrote the rules of drumming in the 1940’s and spent the rest of his career breaking musical barriers and defying listeners’ expectations, died early today at his home in New York. He was 83.

His death was announced today by a spokesman for Blue Note records, on which he frequently appeared. No cause was given. Mr. Roach had been known to be ill for several years.

As a young man, Mr. Roach, a percussion virtuoso capable of playing at the most brutal tempos with subtlety as well as power, was among a small circle of adventurous musicians who brought about wholesale changes in jazz. He remained adventurous to the end.

Over the years he challenged both his audiences and himself by working not just with standard jazz instrumentation, and not just in traditional jazz venues, but in a wide variety of contexts, some of them well beyond the confines of jazz as that word is generally understood.

He led a “double quartet” consisting of his working group of trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums plus a string quartet. He led an ensemble consisting entirely of percussionists. He dueted with uncompromising avant-gardists like the pianist Cecil Taylor and the saxophonist Anthony Braxton. He performed unaccompanied. He wrote music for plays by Sam Shepard and dance pieces by Alvin Ailey. He collaborated with video artists, gospel choirs and hip-hop performers.

Mr. Roach explained his philosophy to The New York Times in 1990: “You can’t write the same book twice. Though I’ve been in historic musical situations, I can’t go back and do that again. And though I run into artistic crises, they keep my life interesting.”

He found himself in historic situations from the beginning of his career. He was still in his teens when he played drums with the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, a pioneer of modern jazz, at a Harlem after-hours club in 1942. Within a few years, Mr. Roach was himself recognized as a pioneer in the development of the sophisticated new form of jazz that came to be known as bebop.

He was not the first drummer to play bebop — Kenny Clarke, 10 years his senior, is generally credited with that distinction — but he quickly established himself as both the most imaginative percussionist in modern jazz and the most influential.

In Mr. Roach’s hands, the drum kit became much more than a means of keeping time. He saw himself as a full-fledged member of the front line, not simply as a supporting player.

Layering rhythms on top of rhythms, he paid as much attention to a song’s melody as to its beat. He developed, as the jazz critic Burt Korall put it, “a highly responsive, contrapuntal style,” engaging his fellow musicians in an open-ended conversation while maintaining a rock-solid pulse. His approach “initially mystified and thoroughly challenged other drummers,” Mr. Korall wrote, but quickly earned the respect of his peers and established a new standard for the instrument.

Mr. Roach was an innovator in other ways. In the late 1950s, he led a group that was among the first in jazz to regularly perform pieces in waltz time and other unusual meters in addition to the conventional 4/4. In the early 1960s, he was among the first to use jazz to address racial and political issues, with works like the album-length “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.”

In 1972, he became one of the first jazz musicians to teach full time at the college level when he was hired as a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And in 1988, he became the first jazz musician to receive a so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Maxwell Roach was born on Jan. 10, 1924, in the small town of New Land, N.C., and grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He began studying piano at a neighborhood Baptist church when he was 8 and took up the drums a few years later.

Even before he graduated from Boys High School in 1942, savvy New York jazz musicians knew his name. As a teenager he worked briefly with Duke Ellington’s orchestra at the Paramount Theater and with Charlie Parker at Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem, where he took part in jam sessions that helped lay the groundwork for bebop.

By the middle 1940’s, he had become a ubiquitous presence on the New York jazz scene, working in the 52nd Street nightclubs with Parker, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and other leading modernists. Within a few years he had become equally ubiquitous on record, participating in such seminal recordings as Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” sessions in 1949 and 1950.

He also found time to study composition at the Manhattan School of Music. He had planned to major in percussion, he later recalled in an interview, but changed his mind after a teacher told him his technique was incorrect. “The way he wanted me to play would have been fine if I’d been after a career in a symphony orchestra,” he said, “but it wouldn’t have worked on 52nd Street.”

Mr. Roach made the transition from sideman to leader in 1954, when he and the young trumpet virtuoso Clifford Brown formed a quintet. That group, which specialized in a muscular and stripped-down version of bebop that came to be called hard bop, took the jazz world by storm. But it was short-lived.

In June 1956, at the height of the Brown-Roach quintet’s success, Brown was killed in an automobile accident, along with Richie Powell, the group’s pianist, and Powell’s wife. The sudden loss of his friend and co-leader, Mr. Roach later recalled, plunged him into depression and heavy drinking from which it took him years to emerge.

Nonetheless, he kept working. He honored his existing nightclub bookings with the two surviving members of his group, the saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the bassist George Morrow, before briefly taking time off and putting together a new quartet. By the end of the 50’s, seemingly recovered from his depression, he was recording prolifically, mostly as a leader but occasionally as a sideman with Mr. Rollins and others.

The personnel of Mr. Roach’s working group changed frequently over the next decade, but the level of artistry and innovation remained high. His sidemen included such important musicians as the saxophonists Eric Dolphy, Stanley Turrentine and George Coleman and the trumpet players Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham and Booker Little. Few of his groups had a pianist, making for a distinctively open ensemble sound in which Mr. Roach’s drums were prominent.

Always among the most politically active of jazz musicians, Mr. Roach had helped the bassist Charles Mingus establish one of the first musician-run record companies, Debut, in 1952. Eight years later, the two organized a so-called rebel festival in Newport, R.I., to protest the Newport Jazz Festival’s treatment of performers. That same year, Mr. Roach collaborated with the lyricist Oscar Brown Jr. on “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” which played variations on the theme of black people’s struggle for equality in the United States and Africa.

The album, which featured vocals by Abbey Lincoln (Mr. Roach’s frequent collaborator and, from 1962 to 1970, his wife), received mixed reviews: many critics praised its ambition, but some attacked it as overly polemical. Mr. Roach was undeterred.

“I will never again play anything that does not have social significance,” he told Down Beat magazine after the album’s release. “We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through.”

“We Insist!” was not a commercial success, but it emboldened Mr. Roach to broaden his scope as a composer. Soon he was collaborating with choreographers, filmmakers and Off Broadway playwrights on projects, including a stage version of “We Insist!”

As his range of activities expanded, his career as a bandleader became less of a priority. At the same time, the market for his uncompromising brand of small-group jazz began to diminish. By the time he joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts in 1972, teaching had come to seem an increasingly attractive alternative to the demands of the musician’s life.

Joining the academy did not mean turning his back entirely on performing. In the early ‘70s, Mr. Roach joined with seven fellow drummers to form M’Boom, an ensemble that achieved tonal and coloristic variety through the use of xylophones, chimes, steel drums and other percussion instruments. Later in the decade he formed a new quartet, two of whose members — the saxophonist Odean Pope and the trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater — would perform and record with him off and on for more than two decades.

He also participated in a number of unusual experiments. He appeared in concert in 1983 with a rapper, two disc jockeys and a team of break dancers. A year later, he composed music for an Off Broadway production of three Sam Shepard plays, for which he won an Obie Award. In 1985, he took part in a multimedia collaboration with the video artist Kit Fitzgerald and the stage director George Ferencz.

Perhaps his most ambitious experiment in those years was the Max Roach Double Quartet, a combination of his quartet and the Uptown String Quartet. Jazz musicians had performed with string accompaniment before, but rarely if ever in a setting like this, where the string players were an equal part of the ensemble and were given the opportunity to improvise. Reviewing a Double Quartet album in The Times in 1985, Robert Palmer wrote, “For the first time in the history of jazz recording, strings swing as persuasively as any saxophonist or drummer.”

This endeavor had personal as well as musical significance for Mr. Roach: the Uptown String Quartet’s founder and viola player was his daughter Maxine. She survives him, as do two other daughters, Ayo and Dara, and two sons, Raoul and Darryl.

By the early ‘90s, Mr. Roach had reduced his teaching load and was again based in New York year-round, traveling to Amherst only for two residencies and a summer program each year. He was still touring with his quartet as recently as 2000, and he also remained active as a composer. In 2002 he wrote and performed the music for “How to Draw a Bunny,” a documentary about the artist Ray Johnson.

:: ubu's notes ::

These are copy-pasted from several threads over on Organissimo.

I've been digging a lot of Max Roach's music, lately. Put most of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet material from the great 10CD box onto my iPod (omitting some alternates and false starts). Then I just recently got around playing most of the Mosaic box, combined with the albums he did for other labels in between the Mercury albums, including Max (Argo), Deeds Not Words (Riverside), the Time album, Award Winning Drummer, and just this morning while commuting the great Prestige album of Sonny Rollins' heading the Roach +4 band (Sonny Rollins Plays For Bird) with Wade Legge and Kenny Dorham (including the magnificient Bird-medley, which probably was the idea for the Mercury album Max Roach Plays Charlie Parker, I assume?). Later I also played the Booker Little 4+ Max Roach album (United Artists/Blue Note CD).
The earlier Mercury albums on the Mosaic, Max Roach +4, Jazz in 3/4 Time (this one's easily available on CD, the only one besides the Jazz in Paris edition of "Parisian Sketches" that is, from the Mercury output), Max Roach 4 Plays Charlie Parker, Max Roach +4 on the Chicago Scene, fit right in with the Argo, Riverside and Time album. The last of the Mercury albums before the Turrentines arrived to replace the Booker Little/George Coleman frontline, The Many Sides of Max, is a minor masterpiece.

Anyway, it's most fascinating to see how Max evolves.
Also it's very interesting to read the liners in the Mosaic and compare the music, play it in chronological way, check out how Roach's solo conception changes and grows... he seems to have been one of jazz' sharpest minds back then - a very intriguing character, to me.
Looking forward now to continue the trip with more of the Turrentine Bros./Julian Priester Quintet (incl. Tommy Turrentine's self-titled album for Time adding Horace Parlan on piano, and the live album on Enja, Long As You're Living predating the last of the Mercury albums recorded in Paris). Next then what I still think are his best albums (besides the Brown/Roach material), Freedom Now Suite and Percussion Bitter Suite.
What a great body of work in so few years! Too bad only that Mercury had more of a project-based approach and didn't document the working quartets/quintets more thoroughly! They're clearly on fire on the 1958 Newport (Mercury) set!


Max' huge contribution to Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus - that's the first album I ever heard with him on drums. The solo he pulls on "St. Thomas" is jaw-dropping (as is the whole album... Blue Seven!)
Beautiful sound on that album too (even on the 80s Fantasy version), it's so deep and blue - one of my very favourite albums to this day!

I was able to catch Max live, in a weird concert with Abdullah Ibrahim. First both of them played half a solo set, and after the break they made a lame attempt at a duo. The Roach solo portion was the only part that was convincing and partly very good, but the whole event was a big letdown, even though I love both guys when they're on their own (or working with more sympathetic partners).

To The Max, the 2CD set, is a nice showcase of more recent Roach, including M'Boom, his 80s quartet, the double quartet and more. Covers all the variety of things Max did in his later career.
Nothing of it comes close, in my opinion, to the stuff he did in 55-63 or so, though... in fact probably most of his post Brownie material isn't coming close to their quintet in 55/56, except maybe for the Candid and Impulse albums mentioned in my first post.
But then, luckily, it's not just about "greatest" albums all the time... he did so many good and great ones besides those classics, too!


Art Davis (December 5, 1934 - July 29, 2007)

I have been playing the Roach Mosaic set with additional other discs in between and have just entered the tuba band months... Davis was a monster player! His playing on the Newport live set (with a broken index finger) is terrific!
He always struck me as a terrific musician when playing with Roach - and as "just" a very good bass player in most of the other contexts I've heard him in. Magic at work when he and Roach got together!

Probably he was just too strong a musical personality. I mean his walking lines, his timing, all of it is too personal for him to just fit in on any kind of jam session or loosely arranged studio date. With Roach though, he's very inspired and inspiring, I find - much more so than George Morrow, who just happens to play the bass in the band, most of the time, Davis is there, you can feel him at any given moment and he's actively shaping the music, not just accompanying - that's how it feels to me, at least...

... is that there are statements about George Morrow in the montage of quotes by musicians/sideman in the Roach Mosaic booklet, that state that he was the only one to really cope with the fast tempos at that time (before Davis joined, that is - no negative words about Boswell, but he's not exactly your greatest bass fiddle virtuoso either, though he did a fine job with what was one of Roach's most underrated bands, in my opinion). There are statements that mention others sitting in, including Oscar Pettiford, and simply being unable to keep the tempo... so Morrow was no slouch, I guess... rather he wasn't a great solo player (not at all... there's one bass feature on the Brown/Roach band, not such a great track, but quite alright), but it seems he's respected by his colleagues if just for his able walking at breakneck tempos.
That tempo thing is one of the slight letdowns of these Roach bands, I think - Billy Wallace makes that point (and he seems quite certain that his own circle of musicians in Chicago was far better than the Roach group he played with... I don't think that makes too much sense, speaking of being better musicians, on that level, but I wouldn't doubt Wallace's statements per se). Anyway, the band so often just playing as fast as they can brings a certain sameness to the music that not even guys like Booker Little and the great (underrated? I guess so even if it's a stupid tag and I already used it in this post...) George Coleman can help getting over that. It's possibly some kind of restlessness, that would again make it interesting... a nervousness, a sensitivity? I don't know, though... looking forward to get through the Turrentines band and then on with the Freedom Now Suite - the 5/4 opener with Hawkins rough and stunning tenor solo most definitely offers one of those fat swinging grooves that Wallace seemed to miss in the Roach band... maybe it's like Roach has lost that nervous edge, gone a step further around that time (Freedom Now and also Percussion Bitter Suite from 1961)?


Anyway, back on topic: enjoying the shit out of those albums with the Turrentine brothers and Julian Priester. Stanley Turrentine is so good at this early stage of his career! Tommy may not be the greatest technician and doesn't have stealth chops and all, but he's got a way of playing that I think is all his own. I played the Quiet As It's Kept album, plus Moon Faced and Starry Eyed (with Abbey Lincoln guesting on two tunes) from the Mosaic, then the Tommy Turrentine Time album, and now getting close to the end of the Enja release, Long As You're Living, from the band's Kaiserslautern 1960 concert - more great playing there! Then I'll end my Roach Mosaic trip with the Paris date, Parisian Sketches, on the last disc... and continue with Freedom Now Suite, of course!

Oh, and let me put in a good word for Julian Priester! Definitely one of my favourite trombone players of any time and style - his sound is so beautiful (highlights being his features on Quiet As It's Kept, I'd say... but most of his solos on these albums are great)!

Another observation about the Turrentines/Priester edition of the Roach quintet: Max seems to loosen up quite a bit by that time. He's still *very* sharp (he always is!) but on some of the bluesier tunes tending in a bit of a "soul jazz" direction (such as the 5/4 groover "As Long As You're Living" or some of the material on the Tommy T Time album), he really lays out a fat groovy bottom that swings almost in the kind of way that Billy Wallace seems to have missed in Roach's playing, I guess...


A few impressions on We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid 1960):
Coleman Hawkins' tenor solo on "Driva Man" smokes! It's one of the strongest statements ever committed to record by Hawkins, in my opinion. It's full of raw emotion, once he even squeaks, but doing a re-take was no option (I think they offered it to him but he didn't want to do it again).
Also how Max stresses the first beat in this 5/4 number, so as the old Hawk doesn't get lost is creating a great kind of groove, kind of a stop and go feel which I love.

Then there's Abbey Lincoln... I never liked her, the one two/third of her Riverside albums and the Candid album are just so-so, I think. But hell, that was a long way from the bar singing stuff she did, looking cute and singing nicely, to the extremely emotional "Tryptich" on this album! That track is still now hard to take for me, it's just too much, actually, too much emotion, too much screaming... but it's real.

One last thought for now: the afro stuff on the second half fits in with the general black movement and all in all this album is one of the highwatermarks of politically engaged jazz, for me. But then it's so good on a musical level, it could be about any kind of crap... but probably if it had been, it wouldn't have ended up being so good on musical terms... anyway, there's the Rollins Freedom Suite and a few other things from the era that I love, most notably the 1960 Randy Weston album "Uhuru Afrika" (Roulette, reissued on the Weston Mosaic Select). That Weston album should be much better known and be part of the "canon" together with the Rollins and Roach Freedom Suites, in my opinion!


Then there's Percussion Bitter Suite - the presence of Eric Dolphy alone makes this Impulse album from 1961 a special thing. Booker Little returns on trumpet, Clifford Jordan is now on tenor (he succeeded Walter Benton who was present on the Freedom Now Suite, holding his own next to Coleman Hawkins), and Julian Priester is still around and heavily contributing. Mal Waldron is on piano, Art Davis still doing great work on bass. Booker Little's opening solo on the first track, "Garvey's Ghost" (dedicated to Marcus Garvey) is so plaintif, so moody, one of my favourite solos of his.
On "Tender Warrior" Dolphy contributes some of his mad bass clarinet playing, the highlight for me, though, comes with "Mendacity" - one of the most haunting pieces of Roach music I'm aware of, right up there with "Driva Man" from the Freedom Now Suite. Dig Dolphy's alto!


Let me end this for the moment. I was actually playing Bill Evans recordings for two days now, but I'll continue my Roach trip where I left off, with Speak, Brother, Speak!, Max Roach Trio featuring the Legendary Hasaan, Drums Unlimited, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and Members, Don't Git Weary (all on Atlantic, except for It's Time, Impulse, and Speak, Brother, Speak!, Fantasy/OJCCD).
I might do another post dedictated to those albums.

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