Sunday, August 19, 2007

Max Roach

There's a wealth of Roach tributes pouring out, quite rightly, all over the web. What jumped into my mind on first hearing the news of Roach's passing was his solo on Valse Hot, a Prestige recording with Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Richie Powell and George Morrow. This was one of the workouts that Andrew had me try to cut my teeth on when I first started lessons with him. I'm reminded also that I had started drums at about age 5 or so, and had been studying and playing, sometimes fanatically, for roughly 23 years by the time I worked with Andrew. And I had heard Roach's solo on Valse Hot maybe 50 or 100 times by the time Andrew put its architecture in front of me.

I had never tried to work through it, had never approached 3/4 in the absolutely literal way that Roach deadpans his way through it. The experience absolutely kicked my skinny Irish ass. It's not conceptually very difficult, really. The idea: boom chick chick, boom chick chick. Right foot, left foot, left foot. Then just layer patterns over the top. But in the way that Roach's conception was always deceptively simple, capturing this pattern in a convincing way, with musicality of phrasing, with his sense of absolute confidence, proved highly challenging for me. The process of transcribing the solo was eye opening and deeply humbling in many ways.

And this goes to so many different layers of musicology and beyond. The drums, in particular, attract a lot of wankers. There were some street drummers out last night at the corner of Mill and Fourth Streets in the execrable (supposedly hip) "downtown" area of Tempe. (More about that in another post). These 3 young drummers had some moves, for sure. They had choreographed some pretty slick stuff and executed some impressive sticking, some flashy acrobatics. I admired their flash and the ways they worked together. I also admired their mastery of the rudiments and their stick control. But there was not much music in the end result. I have nothing against flash. And Roach had plenty of flash himself (his hi hat solos, for but one example). But Roach also made music. Always.

He was an artist first and a drummer second. And I can clearly hear that the end result of this sort of priority is that one becomes massively expert on one's instrument. But the technique is in the service of some sort of statement. Roach was always saying something. Some great drummers are sometimes simply saying "look at how great I am."

One of my growing up moments was moving from Buddy Rich to Max Roach. (and Elvin Jones, and, perhaps oddly, regaining more appreciation for Gene Krupa). The public library where I grew up had a record called "Rich versus Roach," and the role of that record changed over time...from justifying my Buddy Rich fetish to highlighting my newfound respect for Roach. There's a lot I still admire about certain Rich performances (especially excerpted from the cornball contexts that Rich often stooped to). And no matter how much Rich's snare technique can still floor me, if I want to hear the drums as an instrument capable of making music, I'd rather hear Roach in a heartbeat.

What's echoing in my head now is Roach on Bemsha Swing, from Monk's Brilliant Corners. Roach on tympani. Then what piles in is the extended duet with Cecil Taylor from 1979. That this same artist confidently spans these styles and is instantly recognizable is a miracle of American musical culture.

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