Getting back to when hard bop was new

Clifford Brown & Max Roach

Verve, 2000 [originally released 1954]

Several 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 occurred to me that while I’d heard ABOUT these recordings, I’d never actually heard the recordings themselves. Hence, this post.

Which got me to thinking about time travel. A big problem for me in getting inside what made this 1954 debut album by Brown and Roach so, well, groundbreaking is all the jazz that has come since. It was hard to hear what made it so new.

I have a similar problem with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. I mean, I love it, right along with the rest of the world. Ironically, Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps the most popular painter of all time. During his lifetime, he sold a single painting. His work—and that of many fellow Impressionists and Post-Impressionists—was simply too revolutionary for most people of their time. Comparing it to the other styles that preceded it or existed at the same time—Classicism and Romanticism—yes, I can see the difference. But I would love to be able to feel it, in my gut. To see, for instance, what drove author and art critic John Ruskin to accuse James McNeill Whistler [yeah, the Whistler’s mother guy] of having “flung a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

But so much art has happened in the intervening time. The once revolutionary Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are now the comfort food of art, something you’d hang above your sofa—if you were incredibly wealthy, of course.

This is how I would use time travel, if it existed. I would go back in time to see seminal periods in the arts as they happened. To get riled up by Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. To be outraged by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring [the ballet score is still a challenging, angular piece of music, but at its premiere performance by Les Ballets Russes in 1913 in Paris, the audience actually rioted, with fistfights breaking out in the aisles]. Or to sit in some smoky New York or LA jazz club in 1954, hearing the music of Clifford Brown and Max Roach, brand spanking new.

Unfortunately, time travel doesn’t exist yet [all you conspiracy theorists can just shut up right now]. So to get some perspective on this album, I did the next best thing. I listened to recordings by Charlie Parker [Roach had played after hours gigs with Parker in Manhattan while still in high school], by Dizzy Gillespie [Brown has been called the bridge between Gillespie and all other modern trumpeters]—and by Parker and Gillespie together. Stuff both from the late 40s and early 50s.

Both Parker and Gillespie were blowing some groundbreaking licks of their own, make no mistake. But somehow, due largely to the rhythm section perhaps, much of the music felt rooted in its big band beginnings. There was a bouncy jump jazz quality to the rhythms.

By comparison, the music by these young lions [Roach was 30 at the time of these recording sessions done in studios in Hollywood and New York City, Brown not even 24] was relentlessly forward sounding. No backward glances to big band here. Much has been made of Brown’s fiery, confident trumpet solos and his absolute mastery of his instrument, freeing him up to concentrate on emotion and taste, as one reviewer put it. To my admittedly untrained ear, though, it was Roach’s percussion that turned the corner for me. Fluid, assured and new. No looking back. And above all, melodic. As I said in my previous post, Roach 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. You hear just what he was talking about on this album.

There is one backward glance on this album, a playful one. On the track Parisian Thoroughfare, they quote early and often from Gershwin’s 1928 orchestral work, An American in Paris. Because of this, this track gave me the most trouble the first few hearings. It felt like an out-of-synch moment. But then I realized how they used it to compare and contrast, draw you into the here and now. Well, the here and now that was 1954. In the end, the album feels both rooted in time [in a good way] and fresh and new. I don’t feel it in my gut, exactly, but I hear it. And without time travel, I guess that’s as close as you get.

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