Although remembered today mostly as a bebop pioneer who, along with Kenny Clarke, freed the kit from its strict time-keeping role to become an equal of frontline instruments and as the co-leader, with trumpeter Clifford Brown, of one of the greatest hardbop bands, Max Roach remained a questing, groundbreaking jazz musician throughout a career of over six decades. And though trumpeters Brown and Dizzy Gillespie are usually those first associated with Roach, his longest association with a trumpeter was with Cecil Bridgewater, who was a member, along with tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, of his longest lived group, the Max Roach Quartet. That quartet is at the heart of these six CDs. Yet they embrace a wide range of Roach’s interests and exemplify many of his frontier-breaking musical achievements. Chief among them was his
elevation of the drum solo from a virtuosic display into a singular expression of form and creativity with the narrative strength of a fine horn solo. There is a concentrated logic, a marshaling of resources with economy as he employs each component of his kit as if it is another chord or note in his solo line. Each of his solos throughout this collection is unique,
from the variations on swing, “Reflections”, which open the first album, 1979’s Pictures In A Frame, to the volcanic extended solos, many seeming to meld into the accompaniment of horn solos, on 1984’s Scott Free, comprised of a single composition by Bridgewater. The latter also has an example of a setting Roach had been doing since his bebop days, a bass-drums duet, here on bassist Calvin Hill’s warmly humorous “Back to Basics”. Eight of the nine tracks on that first album showcase member compositions, including a Hill waltz. Roach was the first jazz leader to make waltz-time a fully integrated part of the hardbop sound. The leader also plays piano and sings on his “Ode From A Black Picture Show”, an example of his theatrical bent given full scope on this collection’s last album, 1984’s It’s Christmas Again, consisting entirely of two long poems by the black jurist-poet Bruce Wright, recited by Roach over backgrounds from the quartet augmented by reedplayers Lee Konitz and Tony Scott and guitarist Tommaso Lama, as well as bird and electronic soundscapes. In the Light, a studio album recorded in the summer of 1982, finds the quartet reminiscing about the bebop era. After the long, rubato opening title song by Roach, it features two tunes each from Thelonious Monk and Tadd Dameron, plus Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism” and Roach’s “Henry Street Blues”. The first two examples of Roach’s Double Quartet concept, which incorporated a string quartet, appear on albums made in November 1983 and January 1985. The former, Live at Vielharmonie Munich, employs the Swedenborg String Quartet along with an alternative version of the quartet, Dayne Armstrong replacing Pope and Phil Bowler on electric upright bass. Only two pieces are essayed, Roach’s tribute to trumpeter Booker Little, “A Little Booker”, and Bridgewater’s homage to Charlie Parker, “Bird Says”. Both reappear, in brighter, more concise versions, on 1985’s Easy Winners, the first recording featuring The Uptown String Quartet led by the drummer’s daughter, violist Maxine Roach. There’s a rich texture and flowing continuity to the interaction between the strings and jazz quartet here, especially on “A Little Booker” and Pope’s ballad “Sis”, which utilizes the lush string textures without descending into bathos. And “Bird Says” stands out as this string quartet nails the rhythmic spirit as well as the musical content of the Bird quotes in the ensemble passages. The CD concludes with the Scott Joplin title tune, arranged for the strings alone by Maxine Roach in a tip of the bow to ragtime. Into the ‘80s-90s, through his own 60s and 70s, Roach would continue to lead his redoubtable quartet, as well as the Double Quartet and M’Boom, the all-percussion ensemble he first assembled in the late ‘70s. I remember him bringing break dancers with the quartet to a gig in New Jersey in the ‘90s, for he never tired of experimenting and exploring new ways of presenting his music. He also engaged in numerous solo and duet concerts, the latter with both bebop veterans and notables of the jazz avant garde.