Max Roach is one of the most “underrated” musicians in modern jazz history, an odd statement about someone widely recognized as THE dominant influence on his instrument. But I stand behind it – the “twitter-sized” assessment of his career would assess his impact largely in terms of his drumming impact during the bebop era, and indeed he would be a major figure if that were his only contribution (case in point, who doesn’t love Kenny Clarke?). But what about Max’s contributions to playing jazz in 3/4 time? His bandleading? His adaptation to and, more importantly, trailblazing in multiple modern movements in jazz? His ability to collaborate with people from extremely diverse styles? It’s really kind of overwhelming to think that this man known for accompanying Charlie Parker was also subsequently leading groups like the all-percussion M’Boom or his small groups with “underlings” ranging from Stanley Turrentine and Ramsey Lewis to Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.
And all of that is to say nothing of his role as an activist. When I dedicated the tune “Now!” from my Bliss album to Max, the idea was to pay tribute to both of these facets. That is, “Now!” refers on the one hand to the presence and spontaneity that characterized his music throughout his long career. It also refers to the urgency with which he demanded human rights for all people and especially people of color, whether in the U.S. or South Africa. I always found it interesting that a few years after Sonny Rollins produced the “Freedom Suite,” Max came out with the “Freedom Now Suite,” subtitled “We Insist.” This sense of urgency regarding civil rights did not endear him to everyone at the time, but I think history now has a more nuanced view of the necessity of demanding rights that were clearly not going to be handed over in response to passivity. There aren’t many musicians who are towering figures both in the jazz world and in the broader world of human activity, but Max definitely secured his place on that Mount Rushmore.
This list covers ONLY tracks that feature Max Roach as a bandleader.
1 ) “I’ll Remember April” (from At Basin Street with Clifford Brown)
Oh, right, Max had that band he co-led with that trumpet player, what was his name . . . it’ll come to me, just give me a minute . . . oh, right, Clifford Brown. In between being the dominant force in bebop drums and being a trailblazer for progressive jazz in the 1960s, Max contributed to the development of hard bop both as a drummer and bandleader, rivaled by very few (Miles, Blakey, maybe Horace) in that subgenre. All that is fine and good from an academic/historical standpoint, but MY WORD does this band cook. The Latin-to-swing vibe on this classic and much-imitated track makes me grin widely every time I hear it. His rhythm section playing here is propulsive and grooving and his solo is as melodic and authoritative as any on the track, which is saying something on a track that includes Brown and Sonny Rollins.
2 ) “For Big Sid” (from Drums Unlimited)
This is one of my all-time favorite drum performances, period. Based around the swing-era tune “Mop Mop,” Max creates a solo drum masterpiece that essentially puts an exclamation point on Max’s already-established statement for the drumset as a melodic instrument on par with any other in the jazz lexicon. When you find yourself singing a drum solo (and you’re not a drummer), you know something’s happenin’! It’s worth noting that the band tracks on this record are fabulous too, featuring James Spaulding and Freddie Hubbard.
3 ) “Effi” (from Members Don’t Git Weary)
I like to stump folks in “blindfold tests” with this album, featuring Gary Bartz, Charles Tolliver, Jymie Merritt (on electric bass) and this song’s composer, Stanley Cowell. As modern as Max’s music always was (and given the extent to which he pioneered non-4/4 time signatures in jazz), he’s not often spoken of as a “modern” drummer in the post-Tony Williams/Elvin Jones sense. This incredibly soulful yet rhythmically and harmonically modern performance debunks that oversight in a hurry.
4 ) “Driva’ Man” (from We Insist! Freedom Now Suite)
This track is deep on so many levels. The song was co-written by Max and the great, underrated Oscar Brown, Jr. and its haunting depiction of a slave driver is made even more chilling by Abbey Lincoln’s delivery. When the band enters, a dark 5/4 groove provides a backdrop for a solo by a kindred spirit of Max’s, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins (another musician whose modernity transcended styles and time periods). If you don’t feel kind of creeped out after listening to this, you probably weren’t paying attention. In addition to the great music and mood, this is representative of Max’s virtually unmatched commitment to using his music and stature as a vehicle for civil rights, awareness and social justice.
5 ) “Magic and Music” (from Birth and Rebirth with Anthony Braxton)
If you don’t think that “Anthony Braxton” and “Infectiously melodic and swinging” belong in the same sentence, then you have some listening to do, and this track is a great place to start. If you also don’t tend to think of woodwind/drum duets as completely satisfying, then it’s even more important to check this out. Max’s ability to find common ground with virtually anybody is well-documented, as we (this isn’t the only duo meeting between these two, and among his other “progressive” duo albums worth hearing are those with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Connie Crothers and Mal Waldron) and when one looks at what a musical chameleon Braxton has been throughout his career, the appeal of this record is not surprising. I picked out this tune for being especially fun and swinging, but the whole album is varied, deep and very musical.
6 ) “Elixir Suite” (from Bright Moments)
I was in high school when I got to hear the classic later-period Max Roach Quartet with Odeon Pope and Cecil Bridgewater, and was a student at Rutgers when I first heard the Uptown String Quartet, both of them profound experiences. I never did get to hear the mixture of the two (the Double Quartet) live, but the records are irresistible. This intricate composition by Pope features short solos by him and Bridgewater and extended features for Roach and bassist Tyrone Brown. Sometimes it swings hard and sometimes it lilts with great tenderness. Sometimes the music is sparse, and at other times the full orchestration is used to full advantage. All in all, this is perhaps as close as one track could get to encapsulating this amazing collaboration.
7 ) “Just One of Those Things” (from Max Roach Plus Four)
This track is a highlight from Max’s first record date as a leader (and, save for a Thad Jones record, first recording, period) after Clifford Brown’s untimely death. Kenny Dorham steps in, as does Ray Bryant in the place of the also-departed Richie Powell. Rather than it being a somber affair, the return is fiery and triumphant as Max and Sonny Rollins both gobble up this ridiculously fast tempo.
8 ) “The Glorious Monster” (from M’Boom)
I recognize that Roach is underrepresented as a composer on this list. This track, one of two on the album penned by Roach alone, helps to rectify that just a little. The whole album on some level represents a pinnacle of Roach’s lifelong mission to liberate drums and percussion from the traditional roles of accompaniment and melodic limitations. And boy does he do that here, with an amazingly nuanced mixture of pitched and non-pitched percussion instruments played by some of the best in the business, including Freddie Waits, Warren Smith, Joe Chambers and Ray Mantilla. This is musically revolutionary stuff, and to whatever extent it doesn’t sound that way, we can largely see that as being to Roach’s credit for succeeding in his drum-liberation mission.
9 ) “Garvey’s Ghost” (from Percussion Bitter Sweet)
This is driving, haunting and very modern. In addition to Max’s own drumming (surrounded by percussion), the track features two of his most significant collaborators of the early 1960s, vocalist (and at the time wife) Abbey Lincoln and trumpet genius Booker Little – fans of either of them (as I am of both) are among those who know that Roach’s stature as a modern bandleader, composer and nurturer of talent is lofty, debatably comparable his place as a bebop drummer. Tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan gets in a great solo on this track as well.
10 ) “There Will Never Be Another You” (from Deeds Not Words)
Brushwork. Interplay. Ridiculous swing. Making a seemingly empty instrumentation sound full. Sound good? This whole record is fabulous, but I’m singling out this duet with bassist Art Davis. Max’s playing on this standard really makes it no big thing to be listening to a nearly six minute bass-drum duet on a standard. His soloing is amazing too, not surprisingly.