Max Roach has never been known as a drummer's drummer. He's a musician's drummer. He has always approached the drum kit as a symphonic palette, and he became renowned in the 1940s and '50s for his melodic approach to drum solos, with themes, movements, and tonal contrasts.
Max Roach & the So What Brass Quintet
Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, February 24-March 1
In the decades since, while other jazz greats have embraced funk and rock motifs, Roach's far-ranging explorations have brought him to more classical settings. He has performed choral and orchestral works, and composed his own. He developed the Uptown String Quartet, which plays original music derived from the great black tradition of this century, and he created the all-percussion orchestra M'Boom. His latest lineup is the So What Brass Quintet, which features Roach behind two trumpets, trombone, French horn, and tuba.
As the name suggests, the quintet has its roots in a tribute to Miles Davis; "So What" is the opening track of the most famous recording in jazz, Miles' Kind of Blue. The group first came together at a service marking Davis' death back in 1991. "Miles was the brass player I grew up with musically," Roach recalls in a phone interview from Manhattan. "We were about the same age when we first came to New York." The two went on, of course, to lead the bebop revolution with Charlie Parker.
"Brass quintets are as old as string quartets," says Roach. "It encompasses harmony, bass lines, counterpoint—all the things that are musically satisfying." The So What band will offer "some straight-out blowing things," he says, including some new arrangements of classic bop-era tunes like "Donna Lee," "Confirmation," and "'Round Midnight," as well as original compositions such as Roach's suite Ghost Dance, based on the art of the Plains Indians.
The quintet's current configuration includes the beautiful trumpeter Eddie Henderson and Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone. "They're such fine musicians, they can come right to the point," says Roach. "I'll just call something and organically it becomes music." The group has not yet recorded, but may cut some live tracks during its three-week West Coast tour.
For Roach, the new all-brass band is just the latest innovation in a career that is outsized with accolades and musical adventurousness. At age 74, he has won just about every arts award there is, including a MacArthur Fellowship. There's even a park in London named after him.
In recent years, Roach has played duo with Cecil Taylor, toured Europe with a choir, performed with the Kodo drummers of Japan, composed for dance, theater, and movies, and experimented with spoken word and mixed media. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day a few years back, I heard him play a mind-blowing "duet" with the "I Have a Dream" speech, brilliantly drawing out and playing off King's swells and rhythms.
Roach himself remains the very definition of a class act: resolutely humble and soft-spoken, always deferential to the power of the music. However epic his ambitions, there's never anything grand about his playing. He totes a basic kit, and in every setting, you still hear the lightly swinging, thoughtfully melodic approach that echoes his great recordings with Bird, Clifford Brown, and Sonny Rollins.
While Roach has continued to experiment with new sounds, he has never—unlike Miles—been a slave to fashion. There's never anything trendy about Roach's innovations, and his latest quintet, coming at a time when rock-heavy electric guitar dominates most avant-garde jazz, is the latest case in point.
Max Roach will also perform solo at the Performing Arts Center Concert Hall at Western Washington University in Bellingham on Monday, February 23 at 8.