06 December 2008

Under the Radar: Percussion Bitter Sweet

Max Roach
Percussion Bitter Sweet

In the standard history-of-jazz retelling, Max Roach disappears in 1957. He shows up in the 1940s, when he was present at the creation of bebop, and, along with Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey, reinvented jazz drumming for a new generation. He shows up again in the mid-1950s, when he is leading a hard-bop quintet with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown that helps define the genre. Beyond that, he fades against the luminaries of Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others. Max Roach seemingly ceases to be a titan of jazz, slipping into historical obscurity.

In reality, while operating under the massive shadows cast by Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and others during the 1960s, Max Roach produced some wonderful jazz in the early part of the decade worth revisiting. Though he would later recede from the jazz community,* his work early in the decade displayed an artist whose social activism reinvigorated his art following the tragic death of Clifford Brown in 1956. Roach thrust himself into the burgeoning civil rights movement during the late 1950s, raising money for various civil rights organizations, taking part in protests and sit-ins, and using his position as a professional musician to promote the cause in the media. His activism first seeped into his music with 1958's Deeds, Not Words, though one could argue that his founding of Debut Records with Charles Mingus in the early-1950s was also part of his activist streak, considering the socioeconomic environment in which musicians operated.

Roach's activism flourished as the 1960s began. In 1960, Roach helped organize a rebel counter-festival at the Newport Jazz Festival, hoping to promote younger up-and-coming musicians while protesting the low pay of the (usually black) artists who could not garner top billing. Later that year, Roach recorded We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, a multi-part work which chronicled the history of African Americans from slavery to 1960. The next year, Roach would record Percussion Bitter Sweet, with a veritable all-star lineup including trumpeter Booker Little, saxophonist Eric Dolphy, vocalist (and wife) Abbey Lincoln, and pianist Mal Waldron, among others. The album features fresh rhythms, incorporating Afro-Cuban 6/8 beats at times, and captivating performances, but it was also a statement of Roach's cultural politics. Roach acknowledges jazz as rooted in African rhythms and folkways, and presents music that is informed by and informing of African cultures and societies.

The album opens with "Garvey's Ghost," early-20th century black nationalist Marcus Garvey. After a haunting opening melody, Little gives a searing, melodic solo. Little plays around the harmony, weaving in and out of pitch in a solo evocative of a strong orator, rising in energy as his speech builds momentum. Clifford Jordan follows with a wide-ranging solo, and Roach then gives a playful and exploratory drum solo over a conga and cowbell accompaniment. The song closes with the restatement of the melody. Written by Roach, "Garvey's Ghost" uses Lincoln's voice in a chorale with the winds, lending added power to the melody. It is a wonderful example of inter-genre fusion, sounding at home in Africa and America, but possible only in the context of jazz.

"Tender Warrior" reminds us how special Booker Little and Eric Dolphy, and gives the listener pass to wonder how jazz would have been different had both of them not died too young. Little carries the tunes main melody on his flute, showing captivating control over the instrument and letting his voice sound through it. Mal Waldron gives an imaginative solo, followed by Little, who toes the line between harmony and dissonance better than any of his peers could at the time, providing a bridge between hard bop and the avant-garde. Besides that, his sound is wonderful, combining the urgency of Clifford Brown with the vocal quality and warmth of Miles Davis. Dolphy goes on flights of fury on a bass clarinet, followed by an even more furious drum solo by Roach. However, being Max, even when playing furiously he exhibits amazing control over the kit, not making any extraneous sound to dull his lines.

Perhaps the irony of Max Roach is that he made some of the best socially-conscious jazz ever, but did so at a time when highly artistic jazz was en vogue. This is not to say that the two are mutually inclusive, or that they are in direct opposition. Rather, Roach reached one of his peaks during the early 1960's when he recorded Percussion Bittersweet and Freedom Now Suite. However great those albums were, the public and jazz press at large were more interested in (or repulsed by, and then mobilized against) the zeitgeist created by Coleman and pushed further by Coltrane, Albert Ayler, et al. Thus, Roach is under-appreciated in memory, and a fertile period of work for him is not as well-remembered as his earlier peaks or the simultaneous peaks of his peers. Such is jazz, a diverse music that has become nearly impossible to completely keep up with.

Track Listing: Garvey's Ghost; Mama; Tender Warriors; Praise for a Martyr; Mendacity; Man From South Africa
Personnel: Max Roach, drums; Booker Little, trumpet; Julian Priester, trombone; Eric Dolphy, reeds; Clifford Jordan, tenor saxophone; Mal Waldron, piano; Art Davis, bass; Carlos "Patato" Valdes, conga; Carlos "Totico" Eugenio, cowbell; Abbey Lincoln, vocals

*A few resources I read while composing this post (including Roach's biography at All About Jazz), reference a brief period during the mid to late-1960s when Roach was "blacklisted by the American recording industry." The language in these references is vague, and offers few added details. I had not previously seen this in any other readings I have done, which leads me to be somewhat suspicious of the claim. Previously, I had understood that Roach scaled back during this time, recording less often because he was focused on his activism at the time. I'll have to get back to you on that one...

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