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Max Roach: The Complete Mercury Max Roach: Plus Four Sessions

The death of Clifford Brown potentially jeopardized Max Roach’s budding career as a leader. Drummer leaders were few and far between. Additionally, new waves of instrumental stylists were making the transition from sideman to leader. Even though Roach had a contract with Mercury Records, he did not yet have a secure long-term niche; he still bore the onus of succeeding on his name alone. The Complete Mercury Max Roach Plus Four Sessions documents how Roach achieved this, producing a body of work that, while consistent with market trends, stood apart in terms of uncompromising rigor.

Less than two months after Brown’s June, 1956, fatal car crash, Roach’s first solo Mercury sessions with Sonny Rollins, Kenny Dorham, Ray Bryant and George Morrow yielded Max Roach + 4. Generally, the album recapitulates the Brown-Roach hard-bop agenda on tracks like Roach’s “Mr. X” and George Russell’s “Ezz-thetic.” Given his ascending star (Rollins’ stature would dictate Prestige’s release of a truly immortal Brown-Roach Quintet session as Sonny Rollins Plus 4), it is not surprising that Rollins moves center stage for ballads like “Body and Soul” (the tenor player’s first recorded performance), as well as sprinting show-stoppers like “Just One of Those Things.” While Dorham hands in several fiery performances, he doesn’t have Brown’s majestic presence; subsequently, were it not for Roach, Rollins would have dominated the session.

Rollins’ last outing with Roach + 4 was Jazz In 3/4 Time, the first of several concept albums Roach recorded during this period. The program is dotted with smart Rollins tunes and his choice corn. Only an incessant Roach solo keeps an expansive, cajoling Rollins from running away with “Valse Hot,” freshly recycled from the Prestige Plus Four date. Rollins’ captivating ability to croon convincingly one moment and border on the sardonic the next is well displayed on “The Most Beautiful Girl In the World,” which was also included on Tenor Madness. Track after track on these early ’57 recordings (which have a lot more bite than other audience-expanding albums of the times, particularly those pegged to Broadway shows), Rollins looms as large as the leader. Had Rollins not left the group at this point, it may well have become known as Rollins-Roach.

The arrival of Hank Mobley, the elimination of a pianist and, oddly, the decision to record an album of Charlie Parker compositions, solidified Roach’s standing and vision as a leader. One telling trait of Plays Charlie Parker is that every track except the depth plumbing “Parker’s Mood” begins with a bristling unaccompanied Roach introduction. This elemental force reverberates through the flinty pianoless arrangements and the shared urgency of Mobley and Dorham on tracks like “Au Privave” and “Anthropology” (the latter didn’t make the cut, ending up on a Japanese collection with other solid castoffs that are included here), setting the stage for Roach’s most important work during this period, the three-horn quintets featuring Booker Little. Rarely has a songbook album had such a pivotal role in the career of such a history-making innovator.

Little’s first-ever recording was On the Chicago Scene, a 1958 album treasured by collectors because different takes were used on the mono and stereo versions. The 20-year-old trumpeter was already mapping out post-Brown modernism with an intricate sense of construction, deftly nuanced phrasing and bright fire on well-hooked blowing vehicles like George Coleman’s “Shirley.” As an arranger, he showed maturity well beyond his years in an introduction to “Stella By Starlight” scored for Coleman, Bob Cunningham and himself. But the implications of Little’s gifts are much more far reaching just a month later when Roach debuted his quintet with Coleman, Ray Draper and Art Davis, resulting in the excellent At Newport. Little’s serpentine “Minor Mode” is a case in point of how he developed new strains of thematic lines while emphasizing an unabashed love of swing, a balancing act he perfected by the end of his too-short life.

The replacement of Draper by Julian Priester for the 1959 sessions that comprise The Many Sides of Max gave Roach three horn soloists who could cut through his most withering barrages (Roach would precipitously drop the volume for the tuba solos), while the trombone provided more flexible chart options, which were fully utilized by Bill Lee on the poignant “Prelude” and by Little on the yearning-filled “There’s No You.” Still, the real breakthroughs on the date were Roach’s. His phrasing is sparse and stark on solo features like “Lepa,” an intriguing, propulsive composition by Muhal Richard Abrams. A piece that foreshadowed the orchestral use of percussion in M’Boom, “Tympanalli,” was his most audacious use of tympani to date, one as mindful of pitch as it is of rhythm.

The Many Sides of Max, however, went unreleased until 1964. After all, Mercury had bigger fish to fry, like Rich Versus Roach, which was widely anticipated as the drum battle equivalent of the Louis-Schmelling fight. In large measure, Gigi Gryce’s snappy arrangements for the drummers’ combined bands diffused the date’s mano a mano potential; it’s hard to work up a blood lust with cheery tunes like “Sing, Sing, Sing.” In the end, this encounter is not even a debate, let alone a cutting session a la Rich and Krupa-it’s a Bore-Gush style joint appearance. More importantly, this session coincided with a stall in Roach’s long march toward jazz’s progressive outer limits, precipitated by the blow-up of the Little quintet weeks before the Rich Versus Roach sessions.

Just as the loss of Brown caused Roach to retrench his approach at the beginning of this collection, the loss of Little caused him to do the same with his final three Mercurys in 1959 and ’60. Though the second album of the trio, Moon-Faced and Starry-Eyed, is a largely dispensable package of romantic love songs featuring Abbey Lincoln’s supper-clubbish vocals on two tracks, Quiet As It’s Kept and Parisian Sketches are engaging quintet dates with Stanley and Tommy Turrentine, Priester and Bob Boswell. Both Turrentines were personable, fluent modernists at this stage of their respective careers. The lesser known trumpet-playing Turrentine was also a facile composer, particularly in 5/4: Quiet As It’s Kept includes the first recording “As Long As You’re Living,” which he co-penned by Priester, while the insouciant “Un Nouveau Complet” is a highlight of Parisian Sketches.

The last album of this collection also contains Roach’s ambitious “Parisian Sketches,” a 17-minute, five-part blues suite that foreshadows the scope, if not the politically charged passions of Roach’s great works of the ’60s.

Originally Published