To mark the milestone fiftieth birthday of the great drummer Nasheet Waits, here are a couple of pieces — at the top is a feature piece I had an opportunity to write about him for Jazziz at the end of 2017; below it is an article that I commissioned Nasheet to do for the great, late-lamented http://www.jazz.com ‘zine back 2009, where Nasheet selected and discussed a dozen of his favorite tracks by Max Roach, who a key mentor and influence in his life.
Nasheet Waits Jazziz Article (#1):
It was midweek in early February, the eve of a snowstorm, and Nasheet Waits, internationally known as the drummer with Jason Moran’s Bandwagon for the last 17 years and counting, was playing before a sparse audience at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery with a quartet led by 19-year-old alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, comprising 20-year-old bassist Daryl Johns and 21-year-old pianist Jeremy Corren. It could have been the most innocuous of gigs. But Waits, who is 45, devoted full attention to interacting with partners young enough to be his children. Sight-reading the rubato, ametric passages and shifting time signatures in Wilkins’ charts, he interpreted the melodies on the fly, unleashing a stream of undulating beat permutations while eliciting precisely calibrated textures from each component of the drumkit within the flow.
“They were incredible,” Waits said the morning after. “What comes out of their instruments is very mature.” He became sold on Wilkins and Johns after hearing them play standards in trio with twentyish drummer Jeremy Dutton two weeks earlier at Smalls, down the block from the Village Vanguard, where Waits had just finished his evening’s duties with Christian McBride’s open-ended New Jawn Quartet.
“They were expanding them to the edge of what you could still identify as the tune,” said Waits, who had shared Iridium’s bandstand with Johns on a Macy Gray gig in January. “It reminded me of the Bandwagon’s approach to stretching and bending and refracting the foundation. I thought, ‘Oh, these young brothers have the same kind of spirit; it will be nice.’ You have to start accepting who you are age-wise.”
The encounter underlined Waits’ status as a first-call among his generation for multiple bandleaders, famous or obscure, who want a drummer to render a 360-degree range of styles with authoritative execution, high musicality, imaginative intention and inflamed-soul spirit. During the ’90s, Antonio Hart, Stanley Cowell and Hamiet Bluiett were the most prominent leaders who recognized Waits’ potential; in the first half of the aughts, in addition to Bandwagon commitments, Waits frequently played with the Andrew Hill Sextet and Big Band and the Fred Hersch Trio. But during the past decade, he’s become a ubiquitous presence on projects led by upper echelon shape-shifters and speculative improvisors. Since 2011, Waits has toured and recorded with David Murray’s Infinity Quartet, most recently documented on Blues For Memo (Doublemoon). Into the Silence (ECM) is his fourth CD with trumpeter Avishai Cohen; Quiver (ECM) is his third with trumpeter Ralph Alessi; Incantations (Clean Feed) is his fifth with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby. Then, too, during the last 15 months, Waits’ special sauce infuses pianist Ethan Iverson’s old-school piano trio recital, The Purity of the Turf (Criss Cross), with Ron Carter on bass; alto saxophonist’s Logan Richardson fusion-esque Shift (Blue Note); alto saxophonist Michael Attias’ outer-partials opus Nerve Dance (Clean Feed); and pianist Sophia Domanech’s programmatic Alice’s Evidence (Marge).
Recently, Waits contributed his interpretative mojo to Abu Sadiya (Accords Croisses), on which he, French-Tunisian woodwindist Yacine Boularès and cellist Vincent Segal mold the Malian-descended Stambeli music of Tunisia into original works. A collaboration of longer standing is Tarbaby, an experimentally oriented trio with pianist Orrin Evans and bassist Eric Revis whose four recordings since 2009 include discursive encounters with Nicholas Payton, Ambrose Akinmusire and Oliver Lake. New Jawn Quartet’s prospective spring recording for Mack Avenue will reflect the freewheeling interactivity that McBride and Waits achieved throughout their week at the Vanguard.
“I love Nasheet’s intensity, that he’s a conversational drummer without being obtrusive, which is a fine line to walk,” McBride said. “Playing with him is an exciting feeling, like running down a street when a dog is chasing you.”
Moran deployed a different metaphor to express a similar observation. “The way Nasheet’s sensibility moves on the kit is unsettling,” he said. “He can make the ground that might be lush soil turn into ice very fast. You think you have your footing, then all of a sudden it becomes very slippery, and that next step you take, all of a sudden you’re sliding. That can be infuriating to a soloist. I heard that the first time we played together, and it’s intrigued me ever since.
“Any bandleader who calls Nasheet is not looking for anything light. They want to feel the fire underneath them. They want to feel the rhythm really moving. Also, most importantly, when you write music and hand it to a drummer, you are looking for them to fill in every gap you left in the score, to make all the decisions that you aren’t able to make as a non-drummer. He’s figured out the tools to utilize to make people’s average shit sound awesome. That’s what great drummers do.”
“Sometimes you play things that aren’t necessarily what the person wanted, but it’s what the music needed,” Waits said. “I have more resources now than I used to. I always had a creative connection to the music, but I wasn’t always capable of folding that creativity into every situation because I didn’t have the capability. I’ve become more versed in the music’s continuum, and it’s strengthened my foundation. I’ve put a lot more tools in my shed.”
Shortly before New Jawn Quartet entered the Vanguard, Waits had played several dates in Europe with his group, Equality, with alto saxophonist Darius Jones, pianist Aruán Ortiz, and bassist Mark Helias, who perform on his 2016 leader album, Between Nothingness and Infinity (Laborie Jazz). He recorded it eight years after his leader debut, Equality (Fresh Sound), with Richardson, Moran and Bandwagon bassist Tarus Mateen. Both recitals reflect, as Helias puts it, “an unspoken imperative that we’re going to stretch out and take chances. Nasheet is most interested in where a piece is going, how we can expand it from the inside out to make something happen musically.”
One of Waits’ four originals on the new release is “Hesitation.” “It refers to my hesitancy to even ‘lead’ a band,” he says. “The way our industry works, you’re viewed differently as a leader than as a sideman. It took a while for me to become comfortable with feeling I was ready, although Andrew Hill had encouraged me to start my own thing.”
He seized the moment in 2007, while touring with Eddie Gomez for an Italian promoter who suggested Waits organize a band to play some dates. “I knew the promoter’s roster, and I thought a certain aspect of music was under-represented,” he says. “Everything I was seeing was very technical—well-executed, but missing a certain rawness and spontaneity. I felt Jason did that, Tarbaby did it, and that this could be my opportunity to do it.”
After the 2008 recording, Waits did sporadic hits with Equality, some with Moran, Mateen and Richardson. Helias entered the mix, and Cowell, Craig Taborn, David Virelles and then Ortiz played piano at different times. As Waits participated more and more in Murray’s projects, Valerie Malot, Murray’s wife, who runs the 3D Family production company, offered to help him find outlets for his sonic vision.
“I was reticent,” Waits says. “I felt sated in terms of my creativity. But I heard Darius, and enjoyed the emotive quality of his sound, so I decided, ‘Yeah, let’s work on some stuff.’ One thing led to another, and once we got this contract we started doing things overseas. This band definitely has a collective spirit. We’ve had quite a few special moments. I want to be part of creating as many situations like that as possible for the rest of my life.”
Waits traces the consistent imperative to exist as a creative being—to take risks, to make mistakes and play out of them—to “the people who mentored and taught me, my father first and foremost.” He’s referring to Frederick Waits, who worked with blues and rhythm-and-blues groups as a youngster in Jim Crow era Mississippi, before moving to Detroit, where he became a Motown house drummer. He moved to New York in the late 1960s, and ascended the ladder, accumulating a c.v. that boasted work with Ella Fitzgerald, Lee Morgan, Richard Davis, McCoy Tyner, Hill, Cowell, Donald Byrd, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor and Max Roach’s M’Boom.
Waits lives with his wife and four-year-old son in the apartment he grew up in at Westbeth, the venerable artists’ complex on the western edge of Greenwich Village where his parents were original tenants, sharing the space with luminaries like Gil Evans and Merce Cunningham, along with numerous painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers and actors. During childhood and adolescence, his main passions were baseball (he played shortstop) and the drums, on which he practiced assiduously to high-octane jazz recordings like Lee Morgan’s “The Beehive,” from Live at the Lighthouse, fueled by Mickey Roker. He played timbales and drum solos in an excellent middle school band that included best friends Eric McPherson and Abraham Burton, now esteemed jazz pros; Rashied Ali’s son, Idris, who played trumpet; and Sam Rivers’ granddaughters Aisha and Tamara, who played clarinet. At 11, Waits recalls, he accompanied his father to a gig in Connecticut with Jackie McLean, and was allowed to sit in for a tune. For his 16th birthday, he asked his father take him to Sweet Basil, a few blocks away from Westbeth, to hear Cedar Walton, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins.
“I was there at the inception of hip-hop, but it was filtered through Gil Evans and all this other stuff my father was involved in,” Waits says. “It wasn’t that it was jazz; I was attracted to the way it made me feel. It was never presented to me that I had to approach jazz in a certain way, but a cultural importance was placed upon it—if you were going to participate you had to have a respect and reverence for the music.
“Greenwich Village was wild, a lot more diverse—culturally, economically, racially—than it is now. I could say that it translated to being attracted to a certain raw quality in what I do, but also in seeing validity in a lot of different styles of music. It’s more about the culture to me, and the culture can be expressed in a lot of different ways.”
Waits’ mother, Hakima, died when he was 13. He enrolled at a boarding school in Pennsylvania, from which he matriculated to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, where he studied history and psychology, while tabling his involvement with the drums. But when his father died in November, 1989, Nasheet returned to New York so that his 9-year-old brother would not have to be uprooted. For the next decade, they lived together at Westbeth, given unconditional support by family and friends like Max Roach, Roach’s M’Boom colleague Dr. Fred King (Waits’ godfather), and Carvin, who opened their homes and hearts. So did McPherson and Burton, who invited Waits to McPherson’s weekly gig at Augie’s, an uptown bar where other stars-in-the-making like McBride, Brad Mehldau, Jesse Davis and Peter Bernstein came to play. In this environment, Waits rekindled his passion for music-making.
“I didn’t read, and I hadn’t practiced rudiments, like doing a paradiddle or a double-stroke roll,” Waits says. “On my first gig at Augie’s, they called the blues and I didn’t know what they were talking about; they called Rhythm changes and I was like, ‘What does that mean?’” He set about systematically transforming raw talent into knowledge, abetting the process through formal lessons with Carvin; classes at Long Island University’s strong jazz program; and ample face time with Roach, who responded to Waits’ questions with cryptic, koan-like answers. Gradually, Waits assimilated dicta that his father had impressed upon him, particularly the notion that “the sound you pull out of the drums is the first impression you make to people who are listening.”
“My father never forced any of his opinions upon me, but let me discover these things for myself,” Waits says. “He, my father and Michael would always tell me to start my own thing. ‘Ok, this is the way they did it; now how are you going to do it, what are you going to incorporate?’ The breadth of their work was wide, and their hearts were open. They were practicing on the bandstand every time they hit. They had no limitations, and that became part of my lexicon.”
Roach’s insistence on “always sounding like he’s on the edge,” on “never playing it safe,” will remain core to the default basis of operations that animates Waits, his partners in the Bandwagon, and the other company he keeps. “Part of what’s helped us stay together so long is that I try to keep finding other frameworks for us,” Moran says. “It could be conceptual frameworks, where we work on how slow can we play, how long can a space be between one note and the next. I could ask Nasheet to do a press roll for 15 minutes on a piece, and then not have him do it during the performance. It’s to have us think about these processes and how we work together. These things give us new edges to jump off of.”
Waits concurs wholeheartedly. “If you’re always accessing something that you know, you’re limiting what you can learn and the music that can be created,” he says. “Sometimes it can be a disaster, but out of those disasters is a lot of beauty. The way Bandwagon evolved is optimal. It reflects being inside the music and trying to release yourself within that, becoming the music, as opposed to trying to control it or make it do something. To play a tune that sounds good the same way all the time is definitely not the goal. We’re always looking for the sweet spot, but to find that sweet spot you might have to tread through deep and murky waters where you don’t achieve it. The search is lauded as much as the accomplishment. Look at and approach the music like it’s putty in your hands. Make it elastic. Put it in a ball, throw it up against the wall, take it off, see what’s imprinted on it. That can be done in infinite ways, so there’s never an answer. That spirit lends itself to being fresh all the time. Immanuel and his guys were approaching it that way. Most of the musicians I’ve surrounded myself with have that same spirit.”
Nasheet Waits (Max Roach Dozens for http://www.jazz.com):
In an era when drummers consider it a default performance practice to navigate a global template of rhythmic expression, it is important to remember that Max Roach (1924-2007), whose eighty-sixth birthday anniversary came along last week, is the single most important figure in this development.
Just ask the drummers who knew him, as I did a few years back when Downbeat gave me the honor of writing a lengthy obituary. “Before Max, all the drummers, even the great ones like Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa or Chick Webb, approached soloing on the drumset from more of a rudimental and snare drum concept,” said Billy Hart. “Max was the first one to take the rudiments and spread them melodically around the whole drumset—bass drum, tom-tom, snare drum, cymbal.”
“Max was adamant that it was just as important for him to know the form and melody as everybody else,” Kenny Washington added. “He took independence between two hands and two feet to the next level.”
Roach was never content to recreate the past, which he associated with segregation times, and he spent the second half of his career in perpetual forward motion, determinedly bridging stylistic categories. “Max may have used 30 signature things, but he used them in so many different ways,” Jeff “Tain” Watts remarked. “One piece of vocabulary could function as a solo idea, a melody for a solo drum piece. He’d take the same fragment of melodic material and take it out of time, use it like splashing colors on a canvas or whatever, or use it in an avant-garde context, like his duets with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. That cued me not to be so compartmentalized with certain stuff for soloing and other stuff for something else, but just to use vocabulary—your own vocabulary—to serve many functions.”
Born on Jan. 10, 1924, in Newland, N.C., and raised in Brooklyn, Roach was the first jazz musician to treat the drum set both functionally and as an autonomous instrument of limitless artistic possibility. As a teenager, Roach paid close attention to “drummers who could solo”—Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Chick Webb, Cozy Cole. Toward the end of his studies at Boys High School, he began riding the subway from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Harlem for late-night sessions at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s uptown House, where the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie, all Roach’s elders by several years, explored alternative approaches to the status quo.
By 1942, they had reharmonized blues forms and Tin Pan Alley tunes, changing keys, elasticizing the beat and setting hellfire tempos that discouraged weaker players from taking the bandstand when serious work was taking place. Before World War II ended, the new sound was sufficiently established to have a name—bebop.
Thoroughly conversant in how to push a big band—he hit the road with Benny Carter in 1944 and 1945, and filled in for Sonny Greer with Duke Ellington in early 1942—with four-to-the-floor on the bass drum and tricks with the sticks, Roach made his first record in 1943 with Coleman Hawkins, and played on Hawkins’ ur-bebop 1944 session with Gillespie on which “Woody ’N’ You” debuted. But as Charlie Parker’s primary drummer in 1944 and 1945 and from 1947–49, Roach developed a technique that allowed him to keep pace with and enhance Parker’s ferocious velocities and ingenious rhythmic displacements. His famous polyrhythmic solo on Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” in 1951 foreshadowed things to come in the next decade.
During the early 1950s, Roach studied composition at Manhattan School of Music and co-founded, with Charles Mingus, Debut Records—one of the first musician-run record companies. In 1954, he formed the Max Roach–Clifford Brown Quintet, in which he elaborated his concept of transforming the drum set into what he liked to call the multiple percussion set, treating each component as a unique instrument, while weaving his patterns into an elaborate, kinetic design. After the death of Brown and pianist Richie Powell in 1956, he battled depression and anger, but continued to lead a succession of bands with saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Stanley Turrentine, Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, and Gary Bartz, trumpeters Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Richard Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Tolliver, tubist Ray Draper, and pianists Mal Waldron and Stanley Cowell.
Roach also performed as a sideman on such essential ’50s recordings as Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus and The Freedom Suite, as well as important dates by Herbie Nichols, J.J. Johnson and Little. He interpolated African and Afro-Caribbean strategies into his flow, incorporated orchestral percussion into his drum set and worked compositionally with odd meters, polyrhythm and drum tonality. He gave equal weight to both a song’s melodic contour and its beat. “Conversations,” from 1953, was his first recorded drum solo; by the end of the decade, he had developed a body of singular compositions for solo performance built on elemental but difficult-to-execute rudiments upon which he improvised with endless permutations.
He continued to expand his scope through the ’60s. A long-standing member of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Concord Baptist Church, he incorporated the voice—both the singular instrument of his then-wife, Abbey Lincoln, and also choirs—into his presentation. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and he used his music as a vehicle for struggle, expressing views on the zeitgeist in both the titles of his albums and compositions—“We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite” (commissioned by the NAACP for the approaching centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation), “Garvey’s Ghost,” “It’s Time”—and his approach to performing them.
Roach joined the University of Massachusetts, Amherst faculty in the early ’70s, and seemed to use the post as a platform from which to broaden his expression. In 1971, he joined forces with a cohort of New York-based percussionists to form M’Boom, a cooperative nine-man ensemble that addressed a global array of skin-on-skin and mallet instruments; and in the early ’80s he formed the Max Roach Double Quartet, blending his group, the Max Roach Quartet with the Uptown String Quartet, with his daughter, Maxine Roach. He recorded with a large choir and with a symphony orchestra. A 1974 duet recording with Abdullah Ibrahim launched a series of extraordinary musical conversations with speculative improvisers Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp; these sparked subsequent encounters with pianists Connie Crothers and Mal Waldron, and a 1989 meeting with his early mentor Gillespie.
He also reached out to artists representing other musical styles and artistic genres—playing drums for break dancers and turntablists in 1983; collaborating with Amiri Baraka on a musical about Harlem numbers king Bumpy Johnson, and with Sonia Sanchez on drum-freestyle improv; improvising to video images from Kit Fitzgerald, to moves from dancer Bill T. Jones, and to freestyle verse from his nephew, Fred “Fab Five Freddie” Braithwaite, who conjured the epigram, “The man with the fresh approach, Max Roach.” He scored plays by Shakespeare and Sam Shepard, composed for choreographer Alvin Ailey, and set up transcultural hybrids with a Japanese kodo ensemble, gitano flamenco singers, and an ad hoc gathering of Jewish and Arab percussionists in Israel.
No drummer born after the Baby Boom knew Roach more intimately than Nasheet Waits, whose father, the excellent drummer Frederick Douglas “Freddie” Waits (1940-1989), was an original member of M’Boom. Nasheet attended high school with Roach’s twin daughters, Ayo and Dara, and after Freddie Waits passed away, Roach took Nasheet under his wing, eventually hiring him to play with M’Boom.
”Max always used to say that the drums were treated like the nigger in the band—disrespected in terms of your knowledge of music, your ability to be ‘a real musician.’” Waits says. “Nowadays drummers like Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore write as well as anybody else. You have to be to be aware of what’s happening on a lot of levels to be able to play the music. Max may have been the first of his kind like that. He was known as a reader. That’s why he got called to play with Duke Ellington when Sonny Greer was ailing. But then, he said, when he got up to play the chart, there was no chart! So it became instinctual. That’s something that he always stressed to me, personally.
”I had the good fortune of being in his presence quite a bit, on a one-on-one basis, setting up drums and just being around the house. I was starting to get back into playing, and I’d be asking him questions, but his answers were always in a parable, always presented as esoteric knowledge, like trying to get information from a griot and receiving it as a riddle. He always emphasized that the key was to find your own voice, your own path. Everything I’ve heard he plays on always sounds like he’s on the edge, always taking chances, taking it to another level, not satisfied playing the role that drummers traditionally play—and still play.”
1. TRACK: “For Big Sid.”
ARTIST: Max Roach
CD: Drums Unlimited [Atlantic SD1467 / Collectables CD-6256]
Recorded: New York, April 25, 1966
Musicians: Max Roach, drums.
“For Big Sid” is one of three drum solos that Max recorded on Drums Unlimited, along with “The Drum Also Waltzes” and the title track. He had referenced that composition quite a bit, but to my knowledge, this was the first time it was released. Just the fact that he had those drum solos on the album, and the way he presented them, was pretty revolutionary. To me, it’s one of the great albums in the history of jazz music, not only for interspersing the solos between the other songs, but also the quality of those tunes, like “Nommo.” It’s what he played, how he played it. In this music, you always find connections and threads to the history, and even though Max was always forward-thinking, he also referenced the past. This is a perfect example of that.“For Big Sid” references the tune “Mop, Mop,” which Kenny Clarke developed, and is also a direct reference to Sid Catlett who recorded that tune with Art Tatum in 1943. It’s like he’s killing two birds with one stone.
Call-and-response is always present in Max’s approach to soloing as well as comping. Here it’s like he’s playing a melody and comping for himself—all of it happens at the same time. It’s a supreme example of theme-and-variation, where he initiates a theme, and answers himself. He continues that pattern all throughout the piece. He takes a motif, flips it around, inverts it, elongates it. Same initial phrase, but it gets longer—different dynamics and so on. Max always said that he didn’t really play melody, that he played form and structure and shape. He meant that within the course of the framework of the song, the harmony and so forth, he was creating those shapes and following the form. But he always did it so cogently, with great clarity. This is a perfect example of that quality.
What he played was individual to who he was, and how he synthesized all of his experiences. He preached that mantra, but he also followed it. He referenced all types of sources—from the Caribbean and Africa, from the church, from Western Classical, rudimental solos, and Wilcoxsen. All of that is expressed when he played, and it’s certainly evident here. You see his technical virtuosity, but you also see how he uses space. It’s almost like the stuff that he isn’t playing is just as important as the stuff that he does play. Regardless of what he played, he always used that call-and-response, but there’s so much call-and-response from phrase to phrase within the context of this solo in the way he builds it and creates the architecture, and the tones he uses to express it. DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH, DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH, DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH-UHN, DAHT-DAHT.] Sometimes Max goes from left to right, right to left, and then he comes out this way. It’s almost looking in a kaleidoscope. You see the shape, then you twist it, which changes that shape. It’s coming from the last one, but it’s still related to what came before it. All his stuff is related to what comes before, and then he recapitulates to the
2. TRACK: “Dinka Street”
ARTIST: Max Roach
ALBUM: The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan [Atlantic, Collectables CD-6256
MUSICIANS: Max Roach, drums; Hassan Ibn Ali, piano, composer; Art Davis, bass
RECORDED: New York, December 4, 1964
Jason Moran brought The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan to my attention, and it really speaks to me. It’s one of my favorite records, period. The whole record is a departure from traditional piano trio playing I’ve heard up to that point, which is late 1964. It wasn’t like the piano player soloing, and then the drummer and bass player are in support mode, like the Oscar Peterson Trio, or any other trio. It’s like everybody is almost soloing at the same time, or collectively, in the sense of New Orleans collective improvisation. That’s the historical reference I draw from it. It’s never that Max is just playing even the swing pattern and comping for Hassan while he takes a solo. They’re always back and forth, a true conversation. Everybody has individual responsibility as to what’s going on.
The tune starts with an arco bass thing at the beginning, he plays the melody, then a solo section. There’s no real TING, TING-TA-DING, TING-TA-DING swing going on through it. It’s referenced, it’s intimated, but it’s not really that. And Max isn’t really playing the hi-hat on 2 and 4 either. There’s no regimented feel throughout the course of the piece. Then the rhythm that all of them are using is pretty advanced. Hassan is playing phrases in 5 and in 7, and they’re all playing over the bar, even when on the trading. All of it is right on the edge. All of them are virtuosos, but they’re taking it to the apex in terms of creativity within the framework of a trio. Even Elvin Jones, as influential as he was in terms of phrasing and so on, generally rooted everything with a 2-and-4 thing on the hi-hat. Max abandoned that in certain situations, and this, as you can clearly hear, was one of them. He told me there were certain techniques you could use to play that way and still maintain the groove—the groove isn’t abandoned, but he’s still not playing 2 and 4 on the hi-hat. It’s more of a dancing kind of feel. I’ve heard older musicians say that to drummers and to bass players, like, “Yeah, ok, we’re walking, but I want you to dance.” So there’s more freedom involved in how everybody is approaching the rhythm within this group.
There’s also some ride cymbal distinctions on this tune which also, for me, references back to Kenny Clarke. In terms of the music’s evolution, I always think of Papa Jo Jones establishing that ride cymbal pattern, and then Kenny Clarke embellishing on that with techniques like “dropping bombs,” syncopating more between the bass drum and the snare drum, and also varying the ride cymbal pattern, using the ride cymbal more in terms of accents—so not playing four-on-the-floor all the time. On this particular cut, as on the whole recording, Max takes these ideas to another level in the phrases he’s playing in conjunction with what Hassan and Dr. Davis are playing, terms of the pattern of the ride cymbal associated with the omission of the 2-and-4 on the hi-hat. Everybody is listening hard, too, responding and reacting to each other. It’s not like anybody is just doing their own thing. There’s a true synergy. No automatic pilot.
Max changes the texture when the bass solo occurs by switching to the brushes. So takes the flow from a more interactive quality to just straight quarter notes, and changes the dynamic of the piece—more like a movement in a symphony. They’re constructing the music in a way that goes out of the framework of the regular song. From the bass solo in the introduction, to the piano rubato, to the tune, then back to the bass solo—the tune’s structure, the form of the song is pointing forward, elongating. It’s different than the regular 32-bar or 12-bar blues that some people associate with “jazz music.”
3. TRACK: “Tropical Forest”
ARTIST: Max Roach
CD: Birth and Rebirth (Black Saint (It)BSR0024)
Musicians: Max Roach, drums, percussion; Anthony Braxton, clarinet
Recorded: Milan, September 1978
My younger brother is like a renaissance man; he does all kinds of things. A few years ago, some of his friends would come around to our studio and hang out, playing chess, and they’d put on this record. These people were in their early twenties, they weren’t musicians, but they really got into the music. I found that very interesting. This date is a set of extemporaneous compositions. They’re just hitting. But man, these people played this thing over and over again. Some of them were dancers. It spoke to them in a very powerful way. So I guess music can transcend boundaries of the acceptable or the unacceptable, or what people call “avant-garde” or “free.” This is a jewel right here!
It’s all beautiful to me, but on this particular cut what strikes me is that Braxton is playing clarinet, and Max is only playing the hi-hat and also a pitch-bending floor-tom, almost reminiscent of the tympany. Max wasn’t afraid to take chances. I don’t know anybody else who had that on their set—the pitch-bending floor tom with the tympany-like pedal. This piece sounds like, I would think, cut-and-splice—they went in and hit for however long a period of time, and took what they liked. “Ok, this is kind of a song form; let’s deal with this one right here.” This one starts out like that. Max initiates a basic phrase on the hi-hat, Braxton comes in and starts responding to that, they’re still having a conversation, and then Max opens up a little bit to the cymbals, and then he goes to the floor tom and alternates between the floor tom and the hi-hat. That’s it. He doesn’t touch any other part of the set for a little over five minutes. But he creates such a wonderful setting.
I wondered why they called this “Tropical Forest.” But then I realized that Braxton sounds almost reminiscent of those crying birds, like a toucan. I started receiving that kind of imagery from the sound he and Max got. In a lot of Max’s tunes, the title creates a certain image. I started seeing a rainforest setting—tropical colors, yellows and oranges.
This made about as powerful an impression on me as when I heard Roy Haynes play “Subterfuge” on Andrew Hill’s Black Fire. Roy just plays hi-hat the whole track, but still projects the force and drive as if he was playing the ride cymbal. Just that same phrase. I got the same feeling when I heard this track. Sonically, it’s almost a three-part structure, but they transmitted the feeling so effectively. That’s one I’m going to have to go back and revisit a lot. You stumble up on stuff, and then you go, “Wow!” You wind up playing it over and over again. That’s definitely one of those.
4. TRACK: Onomatopoeia
Artist: Max Roach
CD: M’Boom (Columbia JC36247, CK57886
Musicians: Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Omar Clay (composer), Freddy King, Freddie Waits, Warren Smith, Max Roach (drums, percussion, vibraphone, marima, xylophone, tympany), Ray Mantilla (conga, bongo, timbales, Latin percussion); Kenyatte Abdur-Rahman (percussion)
Recorded: July 25, 1979
M’Boom is an all-percussion ensemble, a special group formed in 1970; this recording is from 1979, so it had been a while in the making. The initial members were Omar Clay, Warren Smith, Joe Chambers, Roy Brooks, Max, Freddy King, and Freddie Waits, who was my father. Ray Mantilla came in later.
“Onomatopoeia” is a word that describes a sound. M’Boom is an onomatopoeic expression. I’ve always thought of it as bass drum to the bass drum and cymbal — MMMM-BUM. Tympany. This piece is a perfect example of seamless transition. A lot of themes and phrases overlap and others emerge. or phrases or whatever. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of stuff where it stops and starts—one thing happens, an undercurrent of something under it comes to the forefront, this recedes, something else comes in. Polyphony all the time, shifting dynamics, the different instruments introduced in a staggered way. The piece is in 11, it starts off with the chimes, then the vibes and marimba enter, then after that’s established, the tympany and drumset come in, and they’re kind of soloing over that hemiola that’s repeating in 11—that’s Omar and Joe on drums, I believe, and Warren on tympany. That’s the first portion of the song. Then they make a transition. They stay in 11, but instead of playing [CLAPS 11 QUARTER NOTES], they start playing [CLAPS FOUR HALF-NOTES AND THREE EIGHTH-NOTES] and they go from the marimba and vibes to membrane. I remember playing this song, and they would always be like, ‘Membrane! Membrane!”—meaning going to the skins. If you’re playing a timbale, play the center of the timbale; if you’re playing congas, the center of the conga. No rims. That creates an interesting counter to the xylophone, which is in a different type of register. Max takes the xylophone solo.
Max always used to tell me, “Get to your shit quick” when you’re soloing. He’d go, “Yeah, you’re making some nice statements, but get to your shit quick.” In live performances it might have been different, but for this recording everyone gets their ideas out quick. Regardless how wild or expressive they may be, there’s always that very clear message, to me—not only from Max, but everybody. Warren Smith takes a solo on tympany after Max, then they transfer the phrase from the membrance to the rims—in other words, to the metal. Then he takes a solo on the membrane of a tympany. It switches up. That theme also occurs in a lot of Max’s work, whether solo or with bands—a juxtaposition of different feelings or sounds or meters against each other.
All the members of M’Boom were adept at making those types of rhythmic changes and comfortable with that variation, to the point where the transition from one to the other was seamless. The different textures create a different feeling for the listener. In certain instances, it creates a sense of power, and then when they go to the metal, it sounds a little more frenetic, more like an anticipation of the climax, which is coming next.
5. TRACK: Triptych: Prayer / Protest / Peace
Artist: Max Roach
CD: We Insist: Freedom Now Suite [Candid CCD 79002]
Recorded: New York, September 6, 1960
Musicians: Max Roach (drums); Abbey Lincoln (vocals)
First and foremost, this recording was really important because of its social implications. The liner notes begin with an A. Philip Randolph quote”: “a revolution is unfurling—America’s unfinished revolution. Masses of Negroes are marching onto the stage of history and demanding their freedom now.” That’s where I assume Max copped the title, which was very powerful and definitely indicative of what was happening in the country in 1960. The Civil Rights Bill wouldn’t be signed until 1964. There was a long way to go. Black people in America were living under very severe conditions, and Max was addressing that in the music.
It’s a powerful piece. It’s a duo between Abbey and Max, presented in three parts. Max did a lot of duo work during the course of his career, which speaks to his musical sensitivity, because in every situation, even though he plays some similar language, he presents it differently—and it always seems so fresh and creative. The other day [pianist] Connie Crothers told me they had done a recording on which, he told her, he played some things on brushes that he had never played before. So he was always in tune, always searching for something outside his usual language. We all have language that’s usual to us. I use certain words and phrases more often than others. It’s the same with music. Even a genius and virtuoso such as Max Roach always referenced certain phrases—you can hear them on “Triptych.”
“The Freedom Now Suite,” was a collaborative piece by Max and Oscar Brown, Jr., but “Triptych” is just a duo, which it seems like an extemporaneous composition in three parts. The first part is “Prayer,’ which is the cry of an oppressed people. He starts with a simple phrase. That call-and-response, that antiphony, is always present in his playing. He starts, Abbey is singing, like a prayer, and then the protest emerges from that, where she’s screaming and yelling, and Max is rumbling. There is a definite sense of anger, but there’s also, especially in Max’s playing, a sense of organization. Taking it out of the musical realm and applying it to the social: People had been killed and mistreated for hundreds of years, so there was tremendous anger and resentment, but organization was essential to achieve the goal. I received that message especially in this part, because even though Max is playing aggressively and intensely, there logic in his playing, and he conveys there is also a logic to what he is playing. It’s intense, it’s big, but there’s definitely a logic—and he conveys the message. Abbey as well.
The last part is in 5/4. But Max also references that “Drum Also Waltzes” motif in this section of “Triptych.”
So the image that was created with this song was very powerful and pretty clear. “Triptych” is a piece of art that has three panels, usually the middle one being the larger. That definition doesn’t necessarily apply to this piece; the movements all seem almost equal in length. But I got a very clear visual image from it. Not too long after Miles passed, in late ‘91 or early ‘92, Max organized a memorial for Miles at St. John’s The Divine. Judith Jameson was there, Maya Angelou, different people, and there was some dancing going on. I drove up to the church with him, and we were listening to “Bitches Brew” in the car. He went, “oh, man, I can see these evil-assed chicks brewing some shit.” He was hearing the music and he was relating it directly to the title. He said, “I can see them stirring up some brew to fuck up some cat.” He said it sounds like that.
This has the same effect. I got a very clear picture from “Triptych,” referencing clearly what was going on at that time in America. Max had a lot of problems getting work during this period, from making his political statements. He said a lot of times he went somewhere, and they’d say, “I love this music, but can you just not say anything about this?” He’d say, “No, I have to talk about it.” It was taking money out of his pocket—him and Abbey. I know that she suffered quite a bit as a result of them actually taking a stand and being as vocal about it as they were. Financially speaking, their careers took a hit. So Max always put his money where his mouth was. He was really dedicated. Really high integrity. Willing to sacrifice financial security to get across the message.
6. TRACK: “Fleurette Africaine”
ARTIST: Duke Ellington
CD: Money Jungle [Blue Note CDP 7 46398 2]
Recorded: New York, September 17, 1962
Musicians: Duke Ellington (p) Charles Mingus (b) Max Roach (d)
“Fleurette Africaine” is my favorite song off the legendary Money Jungle record with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. So how can I not include it as one of my favorite cuts that Max was involved in? The great star power of those three individuals together on a record is phenomenal. Actually, to be truthful, I don’t know if Max and Mingus really had that connection in terms of the rhythm section. In fact, Max told me about some things that happened at the session… What happened is probably legendary.
Max was connected to Duke; he’d played with him at 16, his first gig with a signature person, sitting in for Papa Greer [Sonny Greer] for a few nights while Sonny wasn’t feeling well. Here, twenty years later, Max is somewhat of a star himself, and of course, Duke influenced Mingus so much as a composer. To have them all there is special thing. A lot of times, those kind of pulled-together all-star situations don’t work, but this is one of the best dates of that kind.
The Bandwagon recorded “Wig Wise” from this session. I’d never heard it before we recorded, but when I listened, it definitely sounded like they’re at odds, and there’s a lot of aggression coming from Mingus. I dug it, though! It definitely sounds frantic and tense. But this song doesn’t have that quality, which is maybe why it’s my favorite from the album. It’s melancholy, in a way, almost softly sad.
To me, Max provides that calmness. He’s playing mallets, and the feel is subdued throughout. The whole piece sounds like a ballad-fairy-tale song. This is 1962, still the era of the Civil Rights movement, so the fact that they’re referencing something African as beautiful, and equating that with black people, was important. Nowadays it might not necessarily be as important, but then it really was. The “Fleurette Africaine” title references the times—1962 is the year Algeria got its independence from France, and the African nations generally were coming out of the colonial grip. I think the musicians were conscious of that, and were using their music to convey a kinship to those people who were struggling for their independence, because we were doing the same thing over here.
A lot of times it seems that Max is playing the opposite of what Mingus is playing. Mingus goes DING-DING, DING-DING, he’s up in there, and then Max is playing longer. When Mingus is doing the opposite, then Max is rolling. The sound of Max’s playing gives me an image of water in a shallow river bed over small rocks. It sounds like there’s small rocks under what he’s doing. Gentle, sensitive, inobtrusive playing. Very simple melody. Beautiful.
7. TRACK: Donna Lee
ARTIST: Charlie Parker
CD: The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes [Savoy Jazz]
Recorded: New York, May 8, 1947
Musicians: Charlie Parker All Stars: Charlie Parker (alto saxophone, composer); Miles Davis (trumpet); Bud Powell (piano); Tommy Potter (bass); Max Roach (drums)
I could have accessed so many pieces from this era, but I really like “Donna Lee.” It’s a great band, a revolutionary band, with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max, each a legend in the creation of jazz music. And it’s a great piece of music. It’s an abbreviated song—Charlie Parker takes two choruses, Miles and Bud Powell split one, and then they take it out. I like the fact that everyone was able to say so much within that period of time. But this tune also exemplifies how Max could propel a soloist—the way he builds through the course of the song, the way he accompanies the melody and then the soloist. He always pays attention to dynamics; when the piano solo comes, Max takes it down. But during Bird’s solos, he’s never playing anything corny, like when people are using the same rhythmic language to converse. They’re congruent with each other, but they aren’t necessarily using the same language. It’s almost like they’re parallel and connected at the same time. So they’re cross-sectioning, but they’re also parallel—Max is egging Bird on and answering his phrases, like they’re speaking different languages but talking about the same thing. I find that fascinating.
Max was such a risk-taker. He had to have received a lot of criticism for playing that way, because nobody else was playing like that in 1947. He was playing with the people who were at the edge of creativity, and he himself was pushing it forward. Where he was placing his phrases was completely unconventional as far as the rhythmic language of the day. As I listen, I keep wondering, “where is the impetus for you to do that?” The horns were so much out in front on recordings from this time, it’s almost difficult to hear what everybody else was doing! Duke Jordan’s comping is really traditional, playing the turnarounds and so on, and the bass player is just walking, but the interaction between Max and Bird is completely different.
On “Donna Lee,” even when the melody is being played, Max is playing a kind of counter-melody against it. Arthur Taylor used to talk about “Confirmation,” how there are hits in the course of tunes like that, that are the tune. That’s how Max is playing that in “Donna Lee.” He’s playing off of the melody, playing in the holes of that melody, almost like he’s creating an alternate melody, an accompanying rhythmic melody.
8. TRACK: “Un Poco Loco”
Artist: Bud Powell
CD: The Amazing Bud Powell (Blue Note)
Recorded: New York, May 1, 1951.
Musicians: Bud Powell (piano); Curly Russell (bass); Max Roach (drums)
On “Un Poco Loco,” Max played one of the greatest beats ever on a jazz recording, in the same category as the beat Vernell Fournier plays on “Poinciana,” or the beat that Art Blakey plays on “Pensativa.” Max told me that in the studio, he was playing some variations on Caribbean-Afro Cuban rhythms, and Bud said, “You’re supposed to be Max Roach. Can’t you come up with anything slicker than that?” So Max went home and shedded it out, and he came back with this phenomenal beat. Months later he ran into Bud in the street after not seeing him for a while, and Bud said, “Man, you fucked up my record!” I didn’t understand it. I was wondering what about what Max did destroyed it for Bud Powell, because it’s one of my favorites. Of course, Bud may not have been coming from an entirely rational place.
A lot of people have studied the “Un Poco Loco” beat, because it’s in phrases of 5 over the 4, which was way ahead of the curve at the time. Also, the fact that he’s using that cowbell; the sound he’s getting out of the cowbell. It’s obvious that he spent some time dealing with those rhythms. Max had been spending time in Haiti, where he went to study with a guy who had told him that he was greatest drummer in the world. The guy would tell him, “Come here, meet me right here on this corner at 2 o’clock,” Max would get there at 2, and the guy wouldn’t come until 7—he’d leave him waiting! But he said that the guy gave him invaluable information.
Max did a lot of teaching, but he treated his one-on-one drum instruction like oral tradition. He studied from books, and I’ve studied from books, but that’s only a small component of it. Books will give you the facility to execute the stuff that you hear and feel already, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the creativity. This is a perfect example. Max distilled all this stuff and immediately hooked it up into an original beat—you’d never heard anything like it before. It’s the beginning of all those phrases based on rhythmic permutations of five over the four—a step into the future in 1951. A lot of people are playing those types of rhythmic permutations now, almost sixty years later. It sounds like he pulled it together the night before, because it’s right on the edge of almost sounding fucked-up. Then when he comes in, what he plays isn’t clean, the way it was clean with Clifford Brown and that band. It’s right on the edge of almost second-take. I’m talking about everybody. It sounds like it’s not quite settled and comfortable. But I think that quality is what makes it a great recording, and the fact that he was able to superimpose that feeling and beat at that particular time and have it work, keep it happening for almost five minutes. Amazing.
9. TRACK: “Garvey’s Ghost”
ARTIST: Max Roach
CD: Percussion Bitter Sweet [Universal Music Special Markets, B0012607-01]
Musicians: Max Roach (drums); Abbey Lincoln (vocals); Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute); Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone); Booker Little (trumpet); Julian Priester (trombone); Mal Waldron (piano); Art Davis (bass); Carlos Valdez (congas); Carlos Eugenio (cowbell).
Recorded: New York, August 1, 1961
This is one of my favorite cuts of music of all time. It’s another example of how the title really speaks to what’s happening in terms of the music. This references Marcus Garvey, the great Pan-Africanist in the States during the ‘20s and ‘30s, who died in England at a young age, mistreated, and his organization decentralized by the same tactics used against the Black Panthers some years later. The piece references that history, talking about self-determination, but then it’s also really haunting, ghostly—the melody is so powerful, and the fact that Abbey doesn’t sing any words. Max wrote the song. The solos by Booker Little and Clifford Jordan take are straight fire. Then again, we see that juxtaposition of rhythms against each other, because he has Patato playing the congas and Carlos Eugenio playing the cowbell—Max is kind of playing in 6 but also in 3, in the way he’s swinging, and keeps that pattern almost all throughout the piece. But the way he’s comping, it’s almost like he’s soloing. The way he pushes Booker Little and Clifford Jordan through their solos is reminiscent of a solo that he takes, but he keeps that ride cymbal pattern going the whole time, along with the other percussion. But everybody has a certain freedom within what they’re doing. Even the cascara pattern that the cowbell is playing is not fixed. Max’s ride cymbal pattern is, but the other shit he’s playing completely is not. It’s not like any traditional comping. It’s like collective improvisation. Then he solos over that cascara and the congas, and, as he often does, he utilizes a lot of space. He always plays something and then leaves some space, and then plays something else and leaves some space. He calls, he answers, he answers, and then he leaves some space, and then he calls, he answers, and he leaves some space. He always used to say that. There’s always room. “Get to your shit quick, make a statement, and in making that statement, the things that you don’t play are just as important as the things you do.” That always seemed to be a theme for him, and he utilized it in every component of his career. Always some space for others.
That’s the way it seems he led his life in aligning himself with different people, like the record with Hassan, where he gave him the opportunity to present his original music, and even though it was billed as the Max Roach Trio, the title was The Legendary Hassan. That was the only recording that Hassan made except for another Odean Pope recording that I don’t think was ever released. Or the fact that he aligned himself with Clifford Brown and said, “Let’s lead the band together.” I don’t know if he really had to do that. Also the different duo situations. Always on the cusp, but then also, in a sense, very selfless. To be as prolific as he had to have a strong sense of self, as I know because I was around him. That strong sense of self allowed him to let other people shine as well. It was never, “No, it has to be me, and you can’t do your thing.” It was “come on and do your thing.” This is a perfect example. It’s not like he has to growl over the whole thing. He leaves some space, and then he’ll talk to one of the cats, and communicate. Everybody’s listening. This is a year after We Insist, and Max was still on the same path. There’s tunes like “Man From South Africa,” in 7/4. He’s still making that commentary. He’s still on the soapbox, because it’s important and it’s still current, still developing in America.
In 1991, I remember doing a Sacred Drums tour with Max here in America, one of my very first gigs out of town. Tito Puente was on it, and some of these Native American drummers, some koto, stuff like that. Max was playing with Mario Bauza, who had a small orchestra. He was doing multiple things as well as solo stuff, playing with the small band, and this was one of the other portions of the show. Patato was in the band, too. During one of the rehearsals the piano player came up with some arrangements for Max to read, and he called over to me—I was there as a stagehand, his PA, setting up the cymbals and stuff like that. He was just trying to put some money in my pocket and help me out. Max said, “come here, man. Play this.” So he got me down to play the show, and got me my first traveling gig—with Mario Bauza! I had no idea then who he was. I didn’t know what I was doing with clave and so on. I remember Patato looking at me like, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.” The other cats in the band were very encouraging, but Patato didn’t want to give it up. Which I understood, though, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Some years later, I did a recording with him and Michael Marcus and Rahn Burton, and he was cool—maybe I had gotten a few things together. But he tuned my snare drum. I don’t know how, because he still didn’t speak any English, but he tightened it in a certain way, and that snare drum still sounds great to this day. He showed me how to tune the bottom a little tighter than the top. He had that pitch. That snare drum was singing for years.
10. TRACK: “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing,”
ARTIST: Max Roach
CD: Clifford Brown And Max Roach At Basin Street [EmArcy MG 36070]
Recorded: New York, February 16, 1956
Musicians: Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet : Clifford Brown (tp) Sonny Rollins (ts) Richie Powell (p,arr) George Morrow (b) Max Roach (d)
Clifford Brown And Max Roach At Basin Street is one of the albums that I played along with the most when I was younger, and—along with Round Midnight by Miles with Philly, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, John Coltrane’s Crescent, and Horace Silver’s Silver’s Serenade—it’s one of the classic albums that anybody who is interested in pursuing a career in the music really needs to check out. Even though it was only together for about a year, it’s one of Max’s most important bands, with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown on the front line. I love the arrangements and the way that band played together. The stuff was tight. It was a true band—a perfect example of the best. I hate to use that sort of terminology, but that’s the way I feel about it. These cats were executing at such a high level, and the music was so refreshing. It’s still refreshing, to this day.
This one starts off with a little, one-bar intro on the bell of the cymbal, and then they go into five, and then come the solos—Clifford, Sonny, Richie Powell, and Max. One thing that attracts me to this take is the way Richie Powell plays coming out of Max’s solo going back into the top of the song. It’s a seamless transition, like they’re coming together from different places, right into the theme.
It’s important that they were playing in 5/4 in 1956. In American culture most music is in four. It’s just those 5 beats, but with a little lopsided feeling. Now, if we were raised in India or Iraq, we would be accustomed to feeling those rhythms—but we’re not. So the fact that they were using it in “Popular music” meant something in pushing the music forward—initiating something that hadn’t been widely accepted, as happened when Dave Brubeck did “Take Five” a few years later. So this recording is an important document in terms of recorded history. Once an idea is documented, it becomes a possibility. If you were a younger musician in 1956 listening to this for the first time, it may have been the first time you’d heard someone do it, or play a different time signature—and the presentation is so beautiful. Max was part of so many movements where he was ahead of his time, or pointing to the future, part of the vanguard of musicians who always did something challenging.
11. TRACK: “Variation On A Familiar Theme”
ARTIST: Max Roach
CD: Max Roach With The Boston Percussion Ensemble
Musicians: Al Portch (frh) Max Roach (d) Irving Farberman, Everette Firth, Lloyd McCausland, Arthur Press, Charles Smith, Harold Thompson, Walter Tokarczyk (per) Corinne Curry (soprano voice) Harold Faberman (cond, dir, arranger)
recorded in Music Barn of the Music Inn, Lenox, Mass. on Aug. 17, 1958.
I only heard this recently, and it’s an amazing piece—another example of seamless transitions. It runs 2-minutes-20-seconds, and it’s a variation of “Pop Goes The Weasel.” Theoretically it’s like a predecessor to M’Boom. I don’t know if that idea had anything to do with Max’s decision to pull these musicians together, but this was something completely different. He was just guest soloist with the Boston Percussion Ensemble. Harold Faberman did the arrangement.
Here Max is playing within the conventions of orchestral percussion, but from the first time you hear him on the brushes it’s unmistakably him—the same phrasing, the same sound out of the instrument. Regardless of the setting, the language was so indigenous to his person, you know it’s Max regardless of the setting. There are several sections. Max initiates some time with the brushes, then they come in with a theme, then they switch up from 4/4 to 3/4, and he makes that transition, too. A different theme is initiated, and then they transition back into four. This often happens in Western Classical music, but here it’s an interesting juxtaposition of time signatures and also of genre. It’s the “jazz feeling” or whatever, because Max is playing some time countered against what the orchestra is doing with the structure of the piece. He kind of solos in it, but he’s also weaving in and out of the piece, and he’s used to accentuate certain portions. It amazes me that Max was so open and flexible and willing to put himself into so many different positions throughout his career.
I have a degree in music, but the way I learned the music was kind of on the street, watching my Pops play and so forth. I’ve never studied Western classical. Now, Max went to Manhattan School of Music and studied it, but here it sounds like he’s using the techniques that he mastered from his experiences, not from the Western pedagogy. Within the framework of this piece, the music has a certain time feel. When I played with orchestra, it was always challenging from the downbeat, because when I see the conductor come down, I’m thinking that’s the downbeat, but it’s not. Then it’s weird. It’s the downbeat-and, and everyone’s responding to that. Visually, it was so challenging to de-condition yourself—in jazz, it’s always the downbeat, so everyone enters there, whereas in the orchestra the AND after the downbeat is the place. So the fact that Max was able to integrate what he does within that setting so seamlessly, to play the music so impeccably, was impressive—to say the least!
12. TRACK: Streams of Consciousness
Artist: Max Roach
CD: Streams of Consciousness (Baystate (Jap)RVJ-6016)
Musicians: Max Roach, drums, Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim, piano)
Recorded: New York, September 20, 1977
This is another one of Max’s many extemporaneous compositions. On the jacket he writes: “This music is an expression of pure improvisation. Mr. Brand (this is when he was still Dollar Brand) and I had no rehearsals or plans, written or otherwise, as to how or what we were going to record…the resulting cohesiveness, I am sure, had much to do with our environmental similarities.” Another piece on this album is titled “Consanguinity,” and that’s what Max was talking about—the connection between people who are descended from the same ancestry. He’s talking about the fact that he and Abdullah Ibrahim, who was a South African pianist, were equally involved in the struggle for the freedom of their people—or had been involved, because by this time conditions had changed in America, though not in South Africa yet.
But the first cut, which runs about 21 minutes, is called “Stream of Consciousness.” To a certain degree, it’s a spontaneously organized suite that occurs in different movements. They definitely played some construct songs; I don’t know if Abdullah Ibrahim had previously played them, but they were definitely tunes. In between the tunes, a drum solo brings about the transition. That is, in between each statement, there’s a small drum solo, then there was another idea collectively expressed. There are 5 or 6 movements. It goes from drum solo, to interlude, to a 7/4 thing, then the drums initiate a faster 7/4, then they play a couple of blues, a solo—not really any solo piano except when Abdullah Ibrahim plays a little solo at the beginning, and then Max plays some. There are some church inferences after that. You can hear some South African themes, but not as pronounced as you might expect.
It’s another example of Max’s social consciousness and awareness, and also his ability to put himself in an unconventional situation—duo with drums and piano isn’t done that much. In all honesty, the sound is terrible. The bass sounds like a big drum, like he might be using some oil heads or something. The drums themselves don’t sound that good. But the magic between Max and Abdullah is pretty special. It’s obvious that they have a kinship in what’s being played. I think it’s ultimate artistry, not to plan or discuss what’s going to happen, to feel each other out, to let it fly and be open to whatever happens.