Adventure and subtlety: Remembering Max Roach

Drummer/composer/bandleader Max Roach died last week in Manhattan. He was 83. As New York Times editor Peter Keepnews said of him in his excellent tribute on August 16, Mr. Roach “was among a small circle of adventurous musicians who brought about wholesale changes in jazz. He remained adventurous to the end.”

He was adventurous from the beginning too, and talented enough to play after-hours gigs in a New York jazz club while still in high school—with Charlie Parker, no less. And he was one of the pioneers in developing bebop in the 40s and later, working with trumpeter Clifford Brown, morphed it into the harder edged hard bop. Keepnews calls him “both the most imaginative percussionist in modern jazz and the most influential.”

Max Roach could play faster and harder than just about anyone, but he could also do so with amazing subtlety. Melody was hugely important to him. He said that if you walked into a club in the middle of a drum solo, you should be able to guess the melody just from the drums.

mboom.jpgI was introduced to Max Roach with this album, M’Boom, at a party thrown by a jazz drummer, appropriately enough. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I immediately had to find the host, grill him about what we were hearing and, ultimately, leave the party with the borrowed album tucked under my arm.

M’Boom [an onomatopoeia pronounced mmmBOOM] is both the name of the album and the group of eight percussionists he formed in 1970. All eight, including Roach, were not only composers and arrangers, but could handle the entire percussion family—drum sets, marimba, tympani, xylophone, vibraphone, concert tom toms, bongos, orchestra bells and more.

Unless you’ve heard this actual album, you’ve not heard anything like it. Eight percussionists sounds like a recipe for chaos—or at least cacophony. Instead, M’Boom is brilliantly, beautifully melodic. Often highly energetic, but at times, lyrical. More than anything, parts of it remind me of the gamelan music of Indonesia.

Which brings me back to his adventurousness. Yes, he was a jazz drummer—in fact, 100 jazz critics voted him the best jazz drummer of all times. He constantly shaped jazz and redefined it, with his playing, his composing and with the groups and projects he put together over his career. But he experimented far outside the world of jazz too.

The YouTube video below beautifully demonstrates his range. It includes clips of him playing with M’Boom, with his double quartet [his regular jazz quartet plus a string quartet] and with rapper Fab Five Freddie.

Thank you, Max Roach, for so much amazing music for so many years.

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2 Responses to “Adventure and subtlety: Remembering Max Roach”

  1. Ronnie Ann Says:

    An absolutely beautiful tribute to a consummate musician. I was lucky enough to be invited by Peter Keepnews to see Max Roach in the late 80s (I think). You are so right about how lyrical and incredibly energetic this performer was. I join you in remembering this brilliant man.

  2. Getting back to when hard bop was new « What’s on the kitchen boombox? Says:

    […] weeks ago, when I wrote about the passing of drummer Max Roach, I touched on his groundbreaking hard bop recordings with trumpeter Clifford Brown. It suddenly […]

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