One would be hard-pressed to name a drummer more innovative, prolific and respected than Max Roach, who passed away on August 16, 2007 at 83 years old. After the outpouring of appreciations, obituaries and remembrances out there (see below), there isn't much left for me to offer. My tardiness also makes me redundant. But being a lapsed drummer myself, I can't hold back from throwing my thoughts out there.
While some might draw a line between his early days as a bebopper (with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown) and his later excursions into more "avant" territory (with Booker Little, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp), true fans of Roach recognize that his art has been forward-looking from the beginning. Whenver I hear "Ko-Ko," I can't think of any other drummer who made brushwork sound more restless, driving and intense than Roach. He tackled odd time signatures and made them sound fluid and natural. His melodic approach to his own features changed the way we hear all drum solos. Even time-keeping on the ride cymbal and dropping bombs on the bass drum –- something we take for granted today –- was popularized by Max (though he was initially influenced in this regard by Kenny Clarke). And while his involvement with the civil rights movement introduced a stronger political message, and aesthetic, to his music, I'd venture to say his artistic essence was unchanged: an obviously irrepressible current of passion ran through everything Max Roach played.
And he was always a musical drummer. Aside from the fact he indeed composed music, his actual performance often had the detectable lilt of a melody, the architecture of an instrumentalist concerned with phrasing and articulation. Of course, he had plenty of flash (and smash), too, but his creativity ensured that he (and any future drummer who would take a tip from him) would never be seen merely as a time-keeper but as a musician's musician. And let's not forget about how jazzy the tympani sounded with Max holding the mallets.
And even though his sound has always been in our ears, his name wasn't always on our lips -– especially in recent years. It's easy to forget sometimes that his visionary contributions are some of the most pervasive: his ride cymbal time-keeping, his nuanced treatment of his instrument, and the explicit affinities between his politics, freedom and music. Max Roach has passed on, but the incredible breadth and depth of his long, creative legacy ensures that we'll always remember him in some way.
Max Roach: Percussion Bitter Sweet: Incredibly smart, haunting and intuitive pieces and several shining moments for Booker Little and Eric Dolphy. It's indeed percussive, but it never feels like a "drummer's album."
Max Roach: Speak, Brother, Speak: Two expansive explorations – one based on the blues, the other featuring variations on a theme. The interplay between Clifford Jordan and Roach truly is a brotherly dialogue.
Max Roach: Jazz in Paris: Parisian Sketches: a very hip piano-less quintet date in France, featuring Julian Priester and the brothers Turrentine. Bebop and hardbop with a hint of the future. "Liberte" is particularly loose.
Clifford Brown: Study in Brown: Simply essential.
Sonny Clark: Sonny Clark Trio: A straight-ahead trio with Sonny and George Duvivier. Max is especially vigorous on this date.
Duke Ellington/Charles Mingus/Max Roach: Money Jungle: These songs are simply gorgeous – dark rhapsodies with all three voices shining clearly.
Thad Jones: The Magnificent Thad Jones: Especially when considering him as a melodic player, Max is well-matched with Thad and Barry Harris.
Booker Little: Out Front: Unpredictable yet "palatable." Booker sounds as burnished as ever, and Dolphy is visceral. Max's playing is flexible and
Booker Little/Max Roach: Booker Little 4 & Max Roach: With George Coleman and Tommy Flanagan, this is a bit more reigned-in than Out Front but no less fiery. Roach gets thunderous in parts without being overbearing.
Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners: Even though the title cut took over twenty-something takes, I think it retains that necessary rawness of Monk, Rollins, and Roach especially. Max adds some tympani on "Bemsha Swing."
Charlie Parker: Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker: I shouldn't have to mention that "Ko-Ko" is the coolest tune –- with some of the bristliest brushwork –- ever. Roach plays on almost two dozen tunes on this 38-song comp.
Remembrances (many with music):
Darcy James Argue (who also has the definitive list of relevant links. If you have to click one link here, it's this one. He already cites most of the ones below, but I wanted to mention them nonetheless.)
Destination: Out (several mp3s -- and accute historical observations)
Do the Math
Feeling of Jazz
Stop the Play and Watch the Audience
There Stands the Glass
Culture Kiosque (interview with Mike Zwerin)
Drummerworld (two pages; a few mp3s here, too)
Jazz Beyond Jazz (interview with Howard Mandel)
NPR (Weekend Edition)
YouTube (tons of video footage)
Update: Drummer Vinson Valega has several great archival interview clips of Max talking with Phil Schaap from the week-long WKCR memorial tribute. Check it out!