Wednesday, August 04, 2010
This is an album everyone reading this blog who actually gives one half of a damn for the "jazz" shit I write about here should have. That possibly means that sales for this album might spike by about 5 copies worldwide, but it'll be worth it. Max Roach is a unique figure in jazz, not only because he was one of the few musicians from the '40s/'50s bop/hard-bop explosion who made it through to the 21st century w/ his brains and health intact, but also because he was a figure who made a number of far-out platters which gave more than just a passing nod to the avant-garde. In his lifetime (1924-2007), he played w/ everyone from Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker to Miles Davis to Charles Mingus to Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp and beyond. And he was a hell of a mean drummer. If you want some good bop stuff from the '50s w/ him as co-leader, you can't go past the albums he cut w/ Clifford Brown (a relationship which was tragically cut short by Brown's early death in a car accident), and similarly, Roach's Deeds, Not Words and +4 discs are also most definitely worth a shot. In 1961 he released probably his two best, and most infamous rekkids, We Insist!, and this one, Percussion Bittersweet (Impulse). The former has been written about too many times before for me to tackle it, so let's stick w/ the latter. It features an ace all-star line-up: trumpeter Booker Little, veteran side-dude, trombonist Julian Priester (a man who assisted on recordings from Sun Ra to Bo Diddley), pianist Mal Waldren, bass player Art Davis, Mingus alumni Clifford Jordan and best of all, Eric Dolphy on alto sax, bass clarinet and flute. I've never hit a keyboard in relation to Dolphy for this blog before, which makes it long overdue. For one, the man remains my introduction to the world of "jazz" and he was the first guy whose work hit me hard all those years ago (1993) when, on a whim (well, OK, a friend's recommendation), I scored cheap secondhand vinyl copies of his Out There and Out There A Minute LPs. No one will ever know the true story, but one can only wonder as to how much great music he might've made throughout the 1960s and '70s had he lived longer (his life was cut short in 1964). I like to imagine him going on an LSD binge a la John Coltrane and heading for the stratosphere then getting all Zen as the decade closed like Pharoah Sanders and co., but that's just a thought! Anyway, added to the mix is the addition of two percussion (conga and cowbell) players to three tracks, as well as the soaring, mostly wordless vocals of Roach's wife, Abbey Lincoln (who also released some cool albums back in the day w/ similar musicians) to two numbers. Cowbells and congas: there's not enough of 'em in the world of jazz: on the opener, "Garvey's Ghost", they create an immense clutter. Political in tone, much like We Insist! - Roach was one of the most outspoken campaigners for civil rights in the music community, an understandable stance which ruffled the feathers of musical squares in the US but earned him kudos from beret-wearing types in the continent - much of Percussion Bittersweet sounds like "fire music" before Archie Shepp coined the term. The cranking percussive beats, always up in the mix, guide the album, though the brasswork is also what nails it. Dolphy's bass clarinet squawls and screeches amongst the freer moments (it makes a fantastic entry halfway through track 3, "Tender Warriors"), though this still possesses much of the same composure (and composition) of Mingus' work from the era. Which means it doesn't contain the back-against-the-wall energy that Albert Ayler would indulge in just a couple of years later, but it still remains an essential - and awesome - bridge between the worlds of hard bop and the hard blowing the avant-garde would tremor w/ by the mid '60s. Six tracks in 40 minutes and it's over. Still readily available on LP and CD, it's most certainly worth the minimal effort it'll take you to locate a copy.