Max Roach was many things, but above all, he was a survivor. He was born January 10, 1924 in New Land, North Carolina. When he died 83 years later on August 16, 2007 he was one of the few bop pioneers left. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music and then, according to Feather & Gitler’s “Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz”, he became the house drummer at Monroe’s Uptown House.
Roach played with many of the jazz luminaries of the time, including Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and others. A list of all the jazz greats he performed with, life or on record, would read like a list of all the “A” list players from the 1940’s until his death.
During his lifetime, Max Roach recorded a huge number of albums. The one I want to tell you about (from 1958) is a very special one, devoted to the music of one man, Charlie “Bird” Parker.
For “The Max Roach 4 Plays Charlie Parker,” Roach employed an all-new band, and much was made of the fact that he eschewed having a piano player, a format championed by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker a few years earlier.
I’ve never understood the appeal of turning one’s back on the piano, but then I’m hardly unbiased since it is the instrument of choice of some of my favorite musicians.
The personnel for this disk, which was recorded in two sessions several months apart, were as follows:
Max Roach, drums (all tracks)
Kenny Dorham, trumpet (all tracks)
Hank Mobley, tenor sax (tracks 1, 2, 5, 7 through 10 recorded 12-23-1957)
George Coleman, tenor sax (tracks 3, 4 & 6 recorded 4-11-1958)
Nelson Boyd, bass (tracks 3, 4 & 6 4-11-1958)
George Morrow, bass (tracks 1, 2, 5, 7 through 10 recorded 12-23-1957)
The album opens with “Yardbird Suite,” which begins somewhat predictably with Roach, who is quickly joined by Mobley and then Dorham. Dorham soon takes the lead while Roach and Morrow set a nice pace. Mobley then steps forward once more, and he and Dorham trade off on the lead. Roach, never a wallflower, makes his presence known more than once, even taking a short solo shortly before the song ends.
Here are Max Roach and the boys performing Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” for you:
After “Yardbird Suite” we have “Confirmation,” a song I must admit to not being terribly familiar with. It, too, opens with Roach, who is joined almost immediately by both horn players and bassist Boyd. This is a spirited piece of music, with the guys bouncing back and forth, seemingly trading the lead practically with every breath.
Like both songs the precede it, in “KoKo” the musicians jump out of the starting gate and fly off, specifically Roach and Dorham, while Boyd’s bass sets a merry pace, up and down the scale. Coleman eventually joins the melee, and the wild ride continues. The song finally devolves into a frenetic drum solo.
I have made my feelings about such things clear before, so I won’t belabor the fact that I find extended drum solos to be pretentious and self-serving, similar to masturbation in that only one person is really getting any pleasure from what’s going on and that is the drummer.
But hey, it’s a drummer’s album, and an outstanding one at that.
“Billie’s Bounce” is one of Parker’s more popular compositions, and it absolutely lives up to the “bounce” promised by the title. This one features Coleman on the tenor sax, and he, Boyd and Dorham do a fantastic job on this one. Roach wisely limits himself to the background at first, so the others can have an opportunity to strut their stuff, and boy, do they ever! About halfway through we find a short interlude with only Roach and Boyd, but Coleman eventually returns and the song rocks right along. Then we find another drum solo, albeit a comparatively short one, running just over a minute. Then everyone joins in once more to take it to the finish.
It’s getting late, and here in the Portland metro area it is also getting more than a little on the warmish side, weather-wise. So I think I’m going to jump ahead to the final song on the CD version of this album, the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie song “Anthropology aka Thriving On A Riff.” This is a wonderful tour de force for everyone. It opens, of course, with Roach doing his thing, but he is soon joined by both horn players and bassist Morrow. This is one of the shortest songs on the album, running just over five minutes. Five energetic, grueling minutes that will leave you breathless and wanting more!
Needless to say, “The Max Roach 4 Plays Charlie Parker” would make a superb addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
To find out more about Max Roach and his music, here are a few links to help you. The allmusic.com web site has a nice bio of him here. Allaboutjazz.com has an equally impressive write-up about him here. You can also read about him on the Biography.com web site. Drummerworld.com has a very extensive bio and lots and lots of videos. And in an obituary whose headline refers to Roach as the “founder of modern jazz,” the New York Times wrote extensively about him here.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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