Max Volume, Max Intensity
The Complete Mercury Max Roach Plus Four Sessions
by Shelton Hull
Jazz fans are among the most loyal of music consumers, especially those partisans of specific instruments, but that quality has its dark side, namely, an outsized parochialism, a dogmatism born of the feeling of certainty. Jazz fans have their favorites, of course, and any innocent hypothetical discussion of who is/was “the best” at their special slice of the craft can turn into a heated argument faster than a carelessly thrown cigarette can become an unstoppable wildfire. The question of who was the greatest jazz drummer is all but certainly an impossible one to answer, based as it is on a concept that is itself impossible to quantify. Yet still we try.
Among drummers, Max Roach carries a heightened esteem. He didn’t have the charisma of a Gene Krupa, or the technical prowess of a Buddy Rich. Unlike Jo Jones, Chick Webb, Sonny Greer or Louis Bellson, he never played much time in the big bands, seemingly required by many, and he never played on any of the “classic” top sellers in the genre, as did Elvin Jones, Joe Morello and Art Blakey.
Indeed, Roach (born 1924) did no sideman activity after the early 1960s, depriving him of the wide-ranging appeal enjoyed by men like Roy Haynes, Mel Lewis and Jack DeJohnette. Yet he is an oddly singular figure in the history of music, as one of the first jazz percussionists to establish himself as a legitimately “serious” musician outside the inner confines of the jazz world. Roach has played in or with virtually every known dynamic: solos (since 1959), duos (with Anthony Braxton and Archie Shepp), trios, quartets, quartets, quintets, sextets, septets and octets (his Double Quartet), nontet and tentet (the Birth of the Cool band) and let’s not forget his ventures into “classical” music, ranging from string quartets to symphonic orchestras.
That legacy is being celebrated, in part, by Mosaic Records, which has taken their patented reissuing process to his late-1950s material, and in so doing have provided clarity and accessibility to an incredibly productive phase of his career. The Complete Mercury Max Roach Plus Four Sessions collects 95 tracks on seven CDs, spanning three-and-a-half years of ferocious productivity. When approaching someone who’s played with B-boys and ballet dancers, who has worked with more hall-of-famers than most hall-of-famers have, one must tread with caution, lest one drown in the density of it all.
Like many of his fellow drummers (Jones, Manne, Art Taylor and especially Blakey), Roach used his own bands as a springboard to elevate young talent, returning favors paid him by some of the giants of his time. Duke Ellington used a 19 year-old Roach to sub for Greer in 1943; a year later, Coleman Hawkins tapped him to keep time on what legend records as the first bonafide “bebop” session (also including Sarah Whitlock’s favorite jazz musician, Mr. Thelonious Sphere Monk). When Charlie Parker worked his first session as a leader on November 26, 1945, his auspicious company that day included Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Curly Russell and Max Roach, who at 21 had found himself among the vanguard of a cultural revolution. Suffice to say he bore that burden better than many thrust into such a position before and since.
As co-leader of the Brown-Roach Quintet, he was a leading exponent of what became known as “hard bop.” The initial innovations of Parker, Monk and Powell had different applications for the generation of musicians that immediately followed, with the sides delineated in large part by the prominence of the drummer’s role. Roach’s groups never lacked for power, speed or finesse, placing them apart from, say, the Chet Baker-Gerry Mulligan Quartet. A car accident killed rising trumpet icon Clifford Brown, their pianist Richie Powell and their wives in June of 1956. Within three months of losing his second major collaborator (after Parker) in a year, Max Roach was back in the studio. (Brown and Roach were already contracted to Mercury, which was no doubt ready whenever he was.) Two members of the old group remained: the bassist George Morrow and tenor man Sonny Rollins, who would soon be recognized as one of the all-time greats on his horn. The trumpet chair was taken by the versatile bop veteran Kenny Dorham, the piano stool by Philadelphia Ray Bryant. The resulting album, Max Roach +4, is a hard-bop classic and fitting start to the box.
One of the joys of Mosaic’s approach is their listing the songs in chronological order, which allows for trends in the music’s evolution to be made more explicit. But, of the two sessions comprising +4, the master numbers for the second session are ahead of those of the first- an anomaly that goes unexplained. The point is that “Ezz-thetic” was not recorded first (it’s actually the fourth track in the set), but is the first track on the album, which is a very significant thing. With “Ezz-thetic,” a George Russell tune that had been recorded by Miles, Lee Konitz, Russell himself and, later, Grant Green, Roach issued perhaps the most dramatic statement any musician has ever made in the wake of a major tragedy. He debuted a mostly new group with one of the hardest tunes in the post-bop songbook; note that nobody attempts to play that head today.
+4 was the first of three hot albums recorded between September 1956 and April 1958; the constituent tracks cover the first two discs and part of the third. The second one, Jazz in 3/4 Time, marked the start of serious work at opening up the range of tempos available in the jazz idiom. The front line of Dorham and Rollins was boss at any speed, with the technique to play outrageously fast but the sensitivity to wail almost dirgelike on their isolated ballad features. The 14-minute take of Rollins’ “Valse Hot” may be best understood as a precursor to what Roach and Rollins would accomplish together on “Blue 7” (from the latter’s Saxophone Colossus), namely, achieving a relationship to the rhythm that has the effect of suspension of time. The rarest of feats.
Pianist Billy Wallace (who replaced Bryant) is outstanding, especially in his solos on Lover, but for some reason he gives Roach the badmouth something fierce in the liner notes. It’s tempting to wonder if it’s merely coincidence that Wallace would be one of the last piano players Roach would ever work with. The third in this brilliant series finds Roach staking his own claim to the Parker legacy, returning to tunes they played together in the 1940s. Two big changes occurred prior to the December 1957 sessions: 1) Roach dropped the piano spot from his band, forcing an abundance of space that made everyone else work harder toward finding their harmonic center; and 2) Sonny Rollins left the group to pursue a solo career that had exploded that summer. Into his place stepped, first, Hank Mobley, who did the sessions that produced the original album; Mobley and Morrow were gone in April 1958, when George Coleman (ts) and Nelson Boyd (bass) recorded three more tracks, which would prove crucial to the CD reissue in 1994. The notes touch briefly on the evolution of Roach’s solo style, but fails to place the stuff contained within into the larger context. That is, to whatever extent divisions are possible, there are three distinct phases to his approach to the drum solo that reflect not only his own musical philosophy, but also his growing credibility as an instrumentalist. In addition, this context (particularly the phase-shift documented on these recordings) offers explicit proof of how recording technology has impacted jazz music, helping to close the gap between the artist’s vision and the consumers’ understanding.
His early-period style covered the years of the 78 rpm disc; all the Parker stuff, for example. Prior to LPs, the songs had to be shorter, and the soloists were pressed to accommodate that, such that extended exchanges were confined to the club or concert hall. Roach excelled in the face of these limitations, as the songs will confirm. By the time this box set picks up, Roach has adapted to the greater freedom afforded by the LP, and begun to elaborate his vision of the drums as a solo instrument within the broader context of the band dynamic; his bandmates are constantly growing, as well.
This middle-period style reached its apogee in Roach’s solo on “Tune Up,” from Plays Charlie Parker, but all the tools were already there, with its antecedents across the previous two albums. The solo on “Ezz-thetic,” in particular, stands out as a masterpiece of polyrhythmic economy. Few drummers of any style could match Roach’s sense of dramatic tension, lending an episodic quality to his better solos. His “late-period” style, which he maintained through the end of his playing days earlier this decade, is based in his playing full solo compositions, allowing him the freedom to explore his rhythmic language without any pre-imposed boundaries of form. It is after the Parker album that Roach’s 1950s discography falls into disarray, with the result that much of the best material from these years is now only available in this box set and occasionally online. It’s not until Roach’s association with Black Saint and Soul Note, two import-only labels from Italy, that his output comes again into reach of non-specialist audiences. It makes sense, though, that his restless experimentation, his interest in non-conventional forms and his radical politics would combine to make him something less than a no-brainer to record companies, like Mercury, whose jazz brands were starting to feel unprecedented market pressure from rock and roll.
Dorham quit during a gig in Chicago, and the group that recorded Max Roach 4 On the Chicago Scene was assembled ad hoc to finish the date. June 1958 marks the start of collaborations with Booker Little, and a time defined by bold moves into new creative territory. Little would stick around a year, becoming a key associate of Eric Dolphy’s before dying prematurely in 1961.
For one year, spanning from July 1958 to July 1959, Roach led a band consisting of three horns, bass and drums. The rhythm section consisted of himself and Art Davis, a technical marvel best known for his work with John Coltrane, but the horn spots shifted a bit. Little and Coleman were briefly joined by Ray Draper; this time is documented only by the album Deeds, Not Words and the live set (released as Max Roach +4 At Newport, out of print) captured here. Draper’s exit led to the entry of trombonist Julian Priester, who has proven to be the longest-lasting of all Roach’s musical associates. This combo lasted, again, for one studio session, producing The Many Sides of Max (out of print). “Bemsha Swing” is a delight; harmonic duties are carried by bassist Davis, who elucidates the theme to start, leaving the horns to dance around Roach’s beat.
Discs five through seven document Roach’s last band of the decade, which included Priester, bassist Bob Boswell, Tommy Turrentine on trumpet and younger brother Stanley on tenor sax. That group would record the last four albums of Roach’s EmArcy/Mercury tenure, the most notable of which is Moon-Faced and Starry-Eyed, another out-of-print gem that marks his first recording (at least, under his name) with future wife Abbey Lincoln. Their relationship, musical and otherwise, would be a key factor in the evolving radicalism that defines his early-60s material. Rich Versus Roach, which captures a classic confrontation between quintets led by Roach and the irascible Buddy Rich (arguably the most technically proficient of all drummers), is hardly the greatest “drum battle” album- that honor goes either to Krupa and Rich (Verve, 1955), or their followup, The Burning Beat (United Artists, 1962)- but the ensemble playing, based on charts drawn up by Gigi Gryce, is excellent. The actual battle occurs as the track “Figure Eights,” on which Rich and Roach trade four- and eight-bar patterns. The difference is striking: Rich is all power and speed, using his machine gun of a single-stroke roll, whereas Roach stresses the polyrhythms.
Quiet As It’s Kept is one of the most mellow albums of his career, with the title track written by Bill Lee, father of Spike Lee. The last session of this set, from March 1960 (the only session here that didn’t occur in the 1950s) produced the album Parisian Sketches, built around a song cycle written by Roach in tribute to the city that virtually underwrote the jazz industry from the 1920s onward. The box set ends with the track “Liberte,” echoing a theme that would recur in the years to come. It’s a weird accident of fate that, while Max Roach is one of the most widely-known and well-documented jazzmen of any generation, the album regarded by many critics as his finest remains out of print. We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1961) is mentioned a number of times in the Mosaic notes, but it falls beyond their scope. But by providing much needed clarity to aspects of Roach’s oeuvre that might otherwise have been lost to history forever, Mosaic Records has, again, provided a vital service.