Thursday, April 16, 2015

Clifford Brown and Max Roach: "Alone Together - The Best of The Mercury Years"

© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Alone Together, it should be made clear, consists of one CD of Brownie material (much of it with Roach) and one CD of somewhat later Roach recordings; these latter are discussed in the appropriate place. As a package it makes a very attractive introduction to both artists. Of Brownie, there is the magnificent 'Joy Spring' from August 1954, the February 1955 'Cherokee' from A Study In Brown, 'Gertrude's Bounce' from January 1956 with 11 other tracks from the Emarcy sessions. No surprises, but elegantly packaged and very desirable.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

Expanding on the all-too-brief career of Clifford Brown following our earlier posting on Brownie’s recording with strings, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would be best to start with Clifford Brown - Max Roach: Alone Together - The Best of The Mercury Years [Verve 526373-2] as this double CD compilation provides an excellent retrospective on Clifford Brown’s career and that of his closest musical colleague, the legendary drummer, Max Roach.

I have used the insert notes from both CD’s to form this feature because their authors are highly respected artists, each of whom provides a very unique view about the music on these recordings: Reuben Jackson the poet and music critic and Kenny Washington, the excellent Jazz drummer and disc jockey who accurately refers to himself as “The Jazz Maniac.” If you ever engage in a conversation about Jazz with Kenny, one thing you can be certain of - it is going to be a long one.

Since its inception, JazzProfiles has been as much about providing a showcase for those writers who offer insights into and greater understanding of Jazz, as well as, being a forum to highlight the music of Jazz and its makers.

“Clifford Brown - Max Roach: Alone Together - The Best of The Mercury Years, CD 1”

“As almost anyone with even a passing interest in professional sports can tell you, the presence of a couple of bona fide superstars in a lineup does not necessarily guarantee success. (Although historians of the New York Yankees will undoubtedly take umbrage with this thesis.)

And while jazz lovers and critics are as prone to rhapsodizing about its legends as, say, someone who has studied the 1927 baseball season, there are times when the praise is justified, even when it is overwrought with sentiment.

Trumpeter Clifford Brown’s early demise in an automobile accident in 1956 did further kindle the flame of tragic hero worship some are all too quick to associate with Jazz. (Brown as the Lou Gehrig of Jazz - a virile much beloved player felled not by dissipation a la Charlie Parker, the Babe Ruth of jazz, but by fate). And yet to concentrate solely on that aspect of the Wilmington, Delaware native's life does nothing to inform or prepare uninitiated listeners for the still seductive power of his solo and ensemble work.

For whether co-leading a swinging and influential quintet with Max Roach or performing as a guest soloist on dates led by vocalist Helen Merrill or arranger/composer Tadd Dameron, Brown consistently accomplished the easily stated but difficult task of any great artist. Absorbing the innovations of the past yet turning them into personal and memorable statements. (In Brown's case the quicksilver virtuosity associated with Fats Navarro and the lush romanticism of prebop stylists such as Freddie Webster were notably transformed.)

This gift was readily evident even during his first recordings with Chris Powell and His Blue Flames, a rhythm-and-blues group with whom Brown recorded in 1952 after studying music and mathematics at Maryland State and Delaware State Colleges.

His solos on I Come from Jamaica and Ida Red indicate more than a passing familiarity with both the rhythmic complexity brought on by bebop and the fleet, brassy lyricism present in the work of fellow trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro.

But one also hears warmth a midst the virtuosity. Brown seldom lets his astonishing chops get in the way of his music, which never fails to achieve a substantive degree of melodic and harmonic development. He was graced with a full tone that retained its richness in nearly every context.

Still, what makes performances such as the classic Brown composition Joy Spring memorable is the trumpeter's ability to fuse technical prowess, tonal beauty, and wit to the relaxed but infectious swing of the piece, while contrasting yet complementing Land's more bluesy outing.

Brown's performance on Born to Be Blue is one in which his muted obbligatos and solo don't coalesce; his playing is uncharacteristically unsure. The sublime power of Merrill's smoky lament renders his contributions lifeless. There are still heart-wrenching moments in his solo; but when Merrill returns, his emotions exit the room again.

But Brown is probably best remembered for his work with Roach, and their 1954 interpretation of bop pianist Earl "Bud" Powell's Parisian Thoroughfare illustrates their ability to convincingly convey the tumbling melodicism of bop as well as introduce a blues element — which would become characteristic of all the hard-bop ensembles to appear by the end of the decade.

Few bands of that genre had drummers as versatile as Dismal Swamp, North Carolina-born Maxwell Lemuel Roach who, like Brown, assimilated the complexities of bebop but was also familiar with such genius Swing Era drummers as Big Sid Catlett and Jo Jones.

During the period when Roach was regularly performing with such bop icons as Gillespie and Thelonious Monk at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, he was also working with saxophonist Louis Jordan and playing on bills opposite more traditional players such as trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen.

Judging from the effortless, supple swing he provides throughout Joy Spring and Parisian Thoroughfare, it is clear that Roach's stints with the aforementioned artists meant more than just names on his resume.

For in addition to his ability to effectively drive the ensemble, his solos reveal the timbral richness not only present in the best work of drummers Catlett and Jones but saxophonists Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins as well.

Roach obviously understood as a sideman the tonal and rhythmic possibilities present within the trap drum set, and he carried that knowledge along with his unceasing quest for further artistic experimentation into sessions in which he was the leader.

Some of those innovations, such as Sonny Rollins's Valse Hot (with, in addition to the tenor saxophonist, the undersung trumpeter Kenny Dorham and pianist Bill Wallace replacing the deceased Brown and Richie Powell), is one of the earliest jazz waltzes committed to wax. Roach experimented with various time signatures …. The drummer's Dr. Free-Zee, a feature piece supplemented through multitracking with tympani, has remained in the shadows of his body of work for too long.

Though Roach's subsequent exploration of political themes (specifically, the struggle for African-American human rights) is not documented in this collection, the deepening rhythmic complexity that would mark efforts such as We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid) and Percussion Bitter Sweet (Impulse) begins its trek here.

And his earlier interest in working with Brown as well as more traditional trumpeters and saxophonists makes the fact that he has, in recent years, collaborated with rapper Fab Five Freddy, playwright Sam Shepard, and avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor understandable, if not necessarily suited to everyone's taste.

To return to the baseball metaphor for a moment (I am lamenting the absence of the World Series as I write this!*), if Clifford Brown is Gehrig then Roach is Joe DiMaggio — and the music here shows their great teamwork when they played together as well as their individual accomplishments in separate seasons.

[* Due to a Baseball strike or work stoppage that year, the 1994 World Series was cancelled for the first time since 1904.]

Reuben Jackson

October 1994

Reuben Jackson is a poet and music critic who lives in Washington, D.C.”



“Clifford Brown - Max Roach: Alone Together - The Best of The Mercury Years, CD 2”

“Jazz is synonymous with a relay race: An athlete runs a lap before handing the baton to the next runner, who in turn does the same for the next. A great drummer comes up with something musically unique, and before long he passes his stick to the next inspired musician. I should know. I'm one of Max's musical children.
When I was eight years old, my father introduced me to a record titled Jazz of Two Decades (EmArcy DEM-2). It was a compilation of great recordings of the Forties and Fifties that came out of the vaults of the Mercury label and its subsidiaries. Side two began with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet doing Cherokee. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, especially from Max. The thing that really knocked me was the way he tuned his drums.

The high pitched tom-tom tuning was so musical and gave each drum its own identity. After listening to this track a few times, I immediately went to my room to practice and see if I could get that same drum sound. After much tightening of the bottom and top heads, I discovered that I too could get it (boy, was I happy).

After about a week of trying to learn that complicated solo, I discovered some cracks in the shell of the drum. Because I played with the heads so tight, it was starting to tell on my little Brand X set of drums. Loosening the heads only made the cracks bigger.

Since my father bought the drums, he used to inspect them every Sunday to make sure that I was taking care of them. He saw what were by now gaping holes and asked me, "Boy, what happened here?" Boy, was I scared. I thought he was going to kill me. When I told him how I was trying to get that Max Roach sound, he laughed for about ten minutes. Soon after, he bought me a good set of drums. To this day, I still tune my drums like that.

If I were to discuss all of Max's contributions and analyze everything he does on these CDs, this little booklet would turn into a textbook. But there are some things I should point out to help you understand the man and his music:

1.   Max is really the one who insisted on respect for the drummer. He made listeners and musicians alike realize that drummers were not on the bandstand just beating out rhythms; they had to learn just as other instrumentalists did about harmony and musical form. Listen to any of the drum solos on these CDs: They follow the form and chord structure of the tune. Try singing the melody of the tune from the beginning of one of Max's solos and you'll see what I mean.

2.  Max, hands down, is one of the greatest soloists of all time. Even though, as a drummer, it is so easy to show off technique for technique's sake and just make noise, Max plays musical lines with dynamics and space. What he doesn't play is just as important as what he does play.

3.  Disc two could easily be called Genius at Work — In Progress. A front line of trumpet, tuba, and tenor — with no piano to boot — is uncommon even by today's standards.

4.  Check out Max's Variations with the Boston Percussion Ensemble and you'll hear what I call pre-M'Boom. M'Boom, one of the groups that Max currently leads, plays new work and jazz classics solely with percussion instruments.

5.  Max incorporated unusual time signatures in his music as early as 1955. Listen to the last part of the melody on What Am I Here For? and you'll hear four bars in 5/4 time. The same occurs at the end of the piece. Of course he also introduced 3/4 time to modern jazz.

7. Max wrote drum-solo pieces in odd time signatures, and he was also a pioneer of drum solos with bass accompaniment. He felt, Why should the other musicians lay out? After all, he accompanied their solos — why shouldn't they reciprocate?
Max and his contributions are a good part of the reason that Soul Brother No. 1 James Brown could say years later, "Give the drummer some." Thank you, Max!

Kenny Washington

October 1994

Kenny Washington is a musician and host of Big Band Dance Party and Jazz After Hours on WBGO-FM in Newark.”


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