HomeMusic5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Max Roach

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Max Roach


The opening track, “Abstrutions,” subtly invites the listener to explore Roach’s innovative approach to rhythm, form, timbre and improvisation. “Abstrutions” arguably challenges the traditional idea of the blues form, extending the final four-bar phrase with a captivating unison horn call met with a powerful drumroll to carry us back to the top. With support from Roach’s increasingly robust playing, the horn lines intensify as they answer the pianist Stanley Cowell’s commanding improvisation. Roach’s rhythmic agility is felt as the phrase restarts with a seemingly displaced downbeat that keeps listeners on their toes. “Abstrutions” has the full essence of avant-garde jazz but feels inherently soulful and funky at the same time. Roach’s intentional play on tension and release speaks to his distinctive compositional style and meaningful inclusion of the sentiment of protest and activism.

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I discovered and fell in love with jazz while in college. For almost four years, I spent my Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in the listening room of the campus radio station — KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis, Calif. — diving deep into its immaculate record collection. My understanding of the jazz genre came from this place, from playing records, finding something I liked, looking at the personnel and then burrowing through that artist’s discography (this was pre-internet, mind you) in the stacks of vinyl. From this study, I could put my finger on the records, musicians and lineups at the forefront of change in the genre — and at every step of the way, there was Max Roach. “Drums Unlimited” was the first time I heard compositions for the drum and only the drum. Roach seemed to regularly dislodge convention, for decades, but here, on the title track, he is nothing short of a master of the craft — musically, socially, culturally. There he is, with mesmerizing rhythm and beat; a circular thrust that feels like the beginning of revolution. He gives musical voice to what he would later, forcefully, verbally articulate in the Black struggle for liberation. When we were making “Summer of Soul,” Roach’s set at the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 (with his then-wife, Abbey Lincoln) began with a similar drum solo (sorry, it didn’t make the final film!), and all I could think about was this track — a persistent genius, armed with will and intellect, in his element, reaching desperately for freedom.

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Often, the drum is a song’s heartbeat. It brings it life and guides it along until the last note. On “Freedom Day,” Max’s drum playing represents a heart dealing with the emotions of becoming a free human being. You feel the anticipation, the anxiety, the strength, and even the uncertainty. Abbey Lincoln’s vocals, while not perfectly in line with the melody, are still perfectly placed as she represents the honesty of not being sure what is to come, and the power that comes with knowing you are ready to face it.

Max himself said, “we don’t really understand what it is to be free,” yet you hear him feeling free enough to let out a range of emotions in each lick and snare, which allows other musicians like the trumpeter Booker Little to follow suit. The “We Insist!” album was an especially important one, in that after its release, Max vowed to never play music that was not socially relevant. I would be remiss to not also mention the album cover, which is a staged lunch counter sit-in mirrored from the 1960 Greensboro Four sit-in, which took place months before the recording of this album.

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Few drummers have reached the level of innovation and influence Max Roach did throughout his long and prolific career. During the bebop era he, along with Kenny Clarke, transformed the way drummers approached their sets. This approach was part of the foundation of sounds my ears embraced when I first found jazz. “Joy Spring,” recorded with the legendary and tragically short-lived Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet, is a jazz classic and a personal favorite. From the moment the drum hits start, I feel a buoyancy that carries me throughout the tune. Roach’s brushes lay down a steady swing that’s punctuated by deep in-the-pocket hits — he manages to maintain a delicate balance between high energy and smoothness. He gets an attack from those brushes as he flows and accentuates the variations within the melody, the agile soloing filled with his signature triplet motifs. His drumming sings to me as much as Clifford’s trumpet or Harold Land’s sax. I can’t listen to this recording without a smile forming on my face. I’m transported to the days when so much of this music was new. “Joy Spring” remains fresh in my ears at every listening.

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I had, for a little while, been fascinated by the gossip around the recording of “Money Jungle.” The album from the trio of Roach, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington was a generational bridge between a swinging idol and progenitors of bop, but Mingus is said to have stormed out of the session in 1962 because of something Roach played, or said, and had to be cajoled to return by Ellington himself.

Content Source: www.nytimes.com


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