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The Willie Jones III Sextet: Plays the Max Roach Songbook

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Drummer Willie Jones III has put together a very idiosyncratic songbook to honor the seminal bop artist and activist Max Roach. Only two of the seven compositions are Roach originals. Just one track, Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” can be traced back to Roach’s transcendent, if short-lived, partnership with trumpeter Clifford Brown. And there are no songs that were originally recorded by Roach after 1968, an omission of decades and dozens of albums.

But Jones’ intentions are honorable and well executed. He has created a program that favors the incendiary, baton-passing beauty of hard bop at mostly breakneck tempos, and spotlights the timekeeping musicality pioneered by Roach in that context. He recorded live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and allowed plenty of room for solos: Four of the seven songs are over 10 minutes and none is shorter than 7:37. He assembled an impressive sextet with folks like trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and pianist Eric Reed, seasoned bandleaders who tear into this material with the joy of revisiting their hard-bop and postbop roots. Pelt ripples with brawny self-assurance, and after recent discs exploring ballads and Monk covers, it’s a kick to hear Reed cut loose. Saxophonist Stacy Dillard and longtime Jones cohort Steve Davis on trombone likewise have their moments, and bassist Dezron Douglas stokes the rhythm.

But Jones solos as much as anybody, and on handpicked tunes he loves, including two from the relatively obscure Roach album Members, Don’t Git Weary with Gary Bartz and Stanley Cowell. He nails Roach’s pointillist storytelling on the skins and ride cymbal, an innovation that expanded the purview of jazz drummers while opening space within the ensemble. Be it renditions of the politically brave and prescient “Freedom Day” or the closing Porter standard, he plays at warp speed-even his triplets have triplets-and yet with infectious songcraft. That is the real book on Max Roach, and Willie Jones III has read it cover to cover.

Originally Published