The first CD I ever got was the self-titled debut by a band called Rage Against the Machine. That was Christmas 1992 (also the occasion on which I got my first CD player), and for the subsequent 18 years at least one CD has found its way into my pile of holiday swag. Some years CDs (or money to buy them) were basically the only things I got, or actively wanted, but other years were like this one. I didn’t ask anyone for anything this year–couldn’t really think of anything–and as a result only got the obvious gifts, like practical items of clothing, or gift cards for business I’m known to frequent. There was only one CD bestowed upon me: Candid Roach, by the great Max Roach.
This was pure serendipity, the internal logic of which makes perfect sense. The CD was a gift from my uncle. He is a huge jazz fan himself; in fact, he helped wean me onto the music many years ago. He and my aunt have also bought me a number of jazz CDs over the years, of which several were Max Roach products. So, using Amazon to do their buying, of course the computer probably recommended Candid Roach, and since this compilation was only released last year, its selection was certainly the right one. But, from there, it gets slightly weird.
The last time they bought me a jazz CD, it was last Christmas, and my take (which instantly became the stuff of personal legend) included two CDs by Baby Dodds, the first Warne Marsh/Pete Christilieb tenor summit, a trio of albums from the Candid label: Cecil Taylor’s Jazz Advance (which I mostly dropped, other than the exceptional “Rick Kick Shaw” and a cool version of “Bemsha Swing”), The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy (which is strictly epic, start-to-finish) and an album that I’d been seeking out for years, without ever actually buying: Max Roach’s seminal We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. That album marked the high-point of his collaboration with then-wife Abbey Lincoln, who died just a few months ago; it also included legends like trombonist and long-time collaborator Julian Priester, the ill-fated Booker Little and Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins, of course, was one of the first established jazzmen to lend his stamp of approval to the new music, then called “bop”, in 1943.
So, the sessions that birthed that masterpiece, as well as the sessions collected on Candid Roach, were all produced by the label’s A&R guy, Mr. Nat Hentoff, who is a legend in his own right–not only a jazz world whose aural and literary legacy he helped shape, but also in the journalism industry. He was the first alt-weekly columnist, joining the Village Voice in 1955; after being fired a couple years ago, his Voice column still runs monthly, and is the only one in the country that is, without question, better than mine. The man is a legit hero of mine for two completely different reasons, linked only by our common interests.
Like the old-school pro that he is, Hentoff has kept his office number listed for years, appended at the end of his column on the backpage of JazzTimes magazine. Of course, I’ve called him several times over the years, whether trying and failing to land an internship in his office, or seeking his help (which he provided) tracking down primary sources for a book on Max Roach that I could never get a contract to actually write. Imagine my shock, surprise and sublime satisfaction a couple months ago, when he called me for the first time! I was sitting at a local bar, Birdie’s, when he called to thank me for a review of his latest book, At the Jazz Band Ball, which was published at Ink19Online. We spoke for a few minutes, but the thrill will last forever. And then, not too long after, I happened to get one of the albums he produced as an unsolicited Christmas present. Again, serendipity.
That said, the story of how it came into my life is better than the album itself. Candid Roach is a collection of tracks from five sessions that Max Roach led for Candid between August 1960 and April 1961–mostly mid-tempo vehicles for blowing, sharper versions of the work that came out of the late-Mercury Records period just preceding them. “Freedom Day” is a key track on We Insist! “Oh Yeah, Oh Yeah” offers up a trumpet battle between Dorham and the underutilized Benny Bailey; “When Malindy Sings” is a tour de force for Mrs. Roach, whose work during this period merits an upward critical appraisal. For me, the highlight is Booker Little’s “Cliff Walk”, which offers the only known recording of Max Roach and idol Jo Jones (from the great Count Basie band) playing together.
This was a period of peak productivity for the truly fearless leader. The deaths of Clifford Brown and Richie Powell in 1956 shattered what had been one of the pioneering hard-bop groups; he quickly emerged with a harder, faster, even more complex sound than before, aided and abetted by young lions like Kenny Dorham and the “Saxophone Colossus” himself, Sonny Rollins. The recordings he made between 1956 and 1959 are landmarks in the music, conveniently amassed on a stellar box set from Mosaic Records.
By 1961 he’d begun to flesh out his harmonic vision, adding the unsual sounds of Priester’s trombone and Ray Draper’s tuba; he even brought back the piano role he’d abandoned for years. The result was music of unusual complexity, to match a renewed focus (which some might call a fixation) of socio-cultural matters. We Insist! was a landmark, the end of five years of delirious activity; while he remained active, making excellent music, it was not until the 1970s until he was generating the kind of serious buzz he’d had a decade earlier. By the 1980s, as jazz was mainstreaming itself with electric instruments and smooth jazz, while people like the Marsalis Brothers were initiating a New Traditionalism, Roach was forging his own centrist path, collaborating with b-boys, free-jazz titans, chamber groups and classical ensembles of all stripes.
He was an elder statesman with enough energy to outpace men one-third his age, and he remained a marvel of strength, finesse and timing right up until the very end. At no point in his career did Max Roach ever give any sign of losing a step. When illness finally forced his retirement, he stopped while still vital; his last recording, Friendship (a collaboration with the perdurable nonagenarian Clark Terry), could have been the work of any rising young lion, but the leaders totaled 160 years of age. Thanks to all those whose efforts coalesce in allowing me the opportunity to write about Max Roach yet again!