One of the all-time greats passed away today, Max Roach, the brilliant drummer, composer, activist and educator. My first exposure to Max was on Charlie Parker's recordings. What struck me immediately was the incredible precision of his playing. Unlike other boppers like Bud Powell and even Dizzy Gillespie who could, at times, sound very sloppy, Max's playing always seemed crisp and precise--like Bird himself. But it was his recordings with Clifford Brown, and the introduction to Max's melodic style of drumming, that won me over.
In 1990 I had the good fortune to see the Max Roach Quartet with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and saxophonist Odean Pope at Seattle's Jazz Alley. Again, what impressed me the most was his melodic approach to the drums. Now, while the drums in bebop had been liberated from mere timekeeping since WWII, there were few drummers who took advantage of that fact in the way that Max did. Unlike most drum solos where musicians need to count measures in their head to know when to come back in, Max would always keep the melody in the forefront of his playing. Even when stretching out, in the same way you can hear the underlying chords in a melody instrument's solo, you could hear the melody amid his percussion improvisiation.
My favorite albums among Max's work are the the two albums with Clifford Brown titled Study In Brown and More Study In Brown. I also really enjoy his disc with Hank Mobley on Chess records simply titled Max, and of course the disc with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham that he recorded shortly after Brownie's death, Max Roach Plus Four.