One of the most committed political activists among jazz musicians, Max Roach, combined his love of exploring percussion from throughout the globe, incorporating it into jazz rhythms, with a passionate interest in social justice. On this foursome, we hear two albums of the political activism side, with another combining post-bop with a gospel-influenced chorus, while the earliest album, dating from 1959, is probably the most conventional in outlook, though even here the emphasis is on the freer and more experimental side of hard bop.
Arguably Max Roach’s greatest artistic achievement, ‘Percussion Bitter Sweet’, still sounds as astonishingly fresh and innovative now as it did when it first came out in 1961, on an imposing gatefold Impulse album. With a stupendous line-up of musicians, that featured a four piece brass of Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, Booker Little, and Julian Priester, it was sheer genius to pair these titans with a heavyweight rhythm section comprising Cubans Carlos ‘Potato’ Valdez and Carlos ‘Totico’ Eugenio, Art Davis on bass and Mal Waldron on piano. Breaking up the instrumental mayhem are two vocal numbers with Abbey Lincoln in fine form. Both are outstanding with the opener, ‘Garvey’s Ghost’, an impressive uptempo number is in homage to Jamaican Marcus Garvey who did so much to promote a more positive and proud image of African-Americans, while the slower ‘Mendacity’ allows the listener to focus on the lyrics. Another key piece, ‘Tender Warriors’, was specifically written for the children of Birmingham, Alabama, who had fallen victim to the bomb of a racist individual. This is an indispensable album that should be required listening in any modern jazz collection. No less than two full pages of original sleeve notes and plenty to explain about the thoughts of Max Roach on the condition of African-Americans.
Although separated on the two CD’s, the aforementioned Impulse album and writer/indie jazz record producer Nat Hentoff’s short-lived Candid label, ‘We Insist, Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite’, are very much a connected pair, with writing duties shared between Oscar Brown Jr. and Roach (who fell out over the writing which remained incomplete), and once again Abbey Lincoln featuring on vocals. A similar brass line-up replaces Dolphy with Coleman Hawkins and Jordan with Walter Benton, and no piano, but African and Latin percussion from Michael Olatunji and Ray Mantilla. Equally thrilling, and firmly focused on the struggle for freedom in Africa and the system of Apartheid in South Africa, this recording pulls no punches and, in purely commercial terms, it cost both Lincoln and Roach, the mistrust of major labels who were reticent to have on their roster musicians with such dogmatic views, however accurate, premonitory and praiseworthy they would prove to be. Collectively, the two albums have stood the test of time remarkably well and must be rated in the same bracket as Duke Ellington’s ‘Black, Brown and Beige’, which is the leading contender for the recording that is most reflective of the history and condition of African-Americans. That album was premiered in 1943, when riots took place in Harlem, predating the be-bop revolution. Max Roach was not immune to what was happening around him and sought to offer his own vision of matters.
More experimental in its use of a choir to supplement the instrumentalists, ‘It’s Time’, was a second album on Impulse, and one that featured for a third occasion, the vocals of Abbey Lincoln. A three-pronged brass with Clifford Jordan returning alongside Richard williams on trumpet and Julian Priester once again on trombone, with Mal Waldron returning on piano. The all-original compositions by Roach enable the wordless choir vocals to fuse seamlessly with the instrumental music and this album has gone on to be a minor success for Roach. The lesser known and more straight ahead bop of ‘Quiet As It’s Kept’, is nonetheless a worthy addition since the Turrentine brothers Stanley and Tommy are on board, with Priester a regular once more on trombone. A lovely cover of Kenny Dorham’s endearing ‘Lotus Blossom’ is a highlight while two originals co-written by Priester and Turrentine, a Latin-themed ‘Juliano’, and a hard bop filled ‘As Long As You’re Living’. As a whole, then, a wonderful chronicle of Max Roach in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s period of political activism. What would make a splendid follow-up would be to take the story one step further with the towering mid and late 1960’s Atlantic albums including the wonderful and hard to find ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’.