Max Roach - drums; Stanley Cowell - piano; Charles Tolliver - trumpet; Odean Pope - tenor sax; Jymie Merritt - bass
For his appearance at the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival, drummer, bandleader and bebop revolutionary Max Roach showed that he was up-to-date by crossing into the modal and avant-garde camps while retaining touches of his bop roots. Drawing energy from his fiery young frontline of 25-year-old trumpeter Charles Tolliver and 28-year-old tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, along with 26-year-old pianist Stanley Cowell, the elder Roach (who was 43 at the time) came out of the gate blazing on a set that drew from material that appeared on his now-classic 1966 Atlantic recording, Drums Unlimited, and other pieces which would appear the following year on 1968's Members, Don't Git Weary. Roach's contemporary, former Jazz Messengers bassist Jymie Merritt, grounds this set with his intricate, swinging lines on Ampeg electric upright bass.
Roach's quintet opens this July 2nd concert with Cowell's stirring "Effi," which is based on a repeated descending figure that sets up a mesmerizing tone. This modal number features some intense probing within the form from both Tolliver on trumpet and the Philadelphia-based Pope on a brawny-toned, Trane-inspired tenor sax. Roach, who showcased three unaccompanied drum solos on Drums Unlimited from the previous year, demonstrates his mastery on the kit, combining complex polyrhythms and an uncanny ability to draw melody out of the drums on the unaccompanied showpiece, "It's In Five." Next up is Merritt's "Nommo," a piece he introduced on Drums Unlimited and later recorded with Lee Morgan on his classic 1970 Blue Note album, Live at the Lighthouse. Based on a hypnotic three-note bass figure, it starts off in a conventional manner, featuring some swagger on the frontline between the tight unisons played by Pope and Tolliver. This gradually builds to intense peaks of atonality, with searing solos along the way by Pope and Tolliver, the latter dipping into a latter day Trane vibe marked by avant-garde-ish overblowing and streams of notes being forced through his horn. Cowell's continuous comping of that same three-note phrase adds to the building tension of the piece as both Merritt and Roach play around that set groove with impunity. Cowell adds a provocative, probing solo on this adventurous piece.
For the closer, Roach summons up some surging hard bop energy on a blistering romp through an unnamed number that has all the members wailing in high gear on top of the leader's sizzling ride cymbal pulse and unpredictable snare accents. Pope, who would later become a regular member of Roach's ensemble in 1979 and worked with him all the way through 1991's To The Max (one of the legendary drummer's last recordings) is pushed to incendiary heights on this burner. And Roach responds with an astounding solo that pushes the envelope on drumming technique.
One of the architects of bebop (along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and fellow drummer Kenny Clarke), Roach was born on January 10, 1924 in Newland, North Carolina and began playing drums in a gospel band at age 10. After studying at the Manhattan School of Music, he became the house drummer at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where he interacted with various cutting edge players of the day, including Parker, Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. He had brief stints with Benny Carter and Duke Ellington before joining Dizzy Gillespie's quintet in 1943 and made his recording debut that year with Coleman Hawkins. By 1945, he was playing in Charlie Parker's band. Roach's revolutionary approach to the kit, which shifted the rhythmic focus from the bass drum to the ride cymbal, freed up drummers and fueled the early bebop movement. He later recorded with trumpet greats Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham and also participated in the historic Birth of the Cool sessions in 1948. He toured with the Jazz at the Philharmonic revue during the early 1950s before forming his groundbreaking hard bop quintet with Clifford Brown in mid-1954.
Roach followed up the politically-charged Freedom Now Suite with another classic in 1961's Percussion Bitter Sweet, which featured such stellar sidemen as trumpeter Booker Little, alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy, trombonist Julian Priester, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, pianist Mal Waldron, bassist Art Davis and singer Abbey Lincoln, who contributed emotionally stirring vocals on "Mendacity." Roach's 1965 classic Drums Unlimited included three unaccompanied drumming showcases in "For Big Sid," "The Drum Also Waltzes" and the dramatic title track. In 1970, he formed the percussion ensemble M'Boom and during the '70s recorded riveting duets with multi-reed phenom Anthony Braxton as well as avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. He continued to perform through the '80s with M'Boom, his regular quartet and his Double Quartet (the regular quartet augmented by the Uptown String Quartet, which included his daughter Maxine Roach on viola).
Roach remained tirelessly adventurous in his later years, performing with orchestras, dance companies, Japanese folkloric musicians and even rappers and break dancers. His last recording, 2002's Friendship, was with his longtime friend, trumpet master Clark Terry. Roach died on August 15, 2007 after a long illness.
-Written by Bill Milkowski