Friday, August 17, 2007

Max Roach 1924-2007

Max Roach: "Conversation" (from Deeds, Not Words 1958. Buy/download)

The great jazz drummer Max Roach died yesterday. (Born in Newland, NC, so there's the "local music" connection I'm hanging this post on.) He was a real innovator in a way that's hard to appreciate when so many have followed in his footsteps. Most notably in his solo pieces, he treated the drumset as an instrument. Rather than displaying mere technical flash, Roach created themes -- melodies, really -- and structured his solo around them just as a trumpet or piano player would. You can hear this in "Conversation" which I've posted here.

What's particularly impressive to me is the way he continued to stretch his boundaries throughout his life, working with a full-blown percussion ensemble, a brass quintet, a string quartet, gospel choirs and hip-hop artists. It's also worth noting how effectively he used his music and his celebrity to advocate for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

On a personal level, he was a key figure in opening my eyes and ears to jazz in particular and a wider range of musical possibility in general. In high school, when I was still at the stage where Neal Peart seemed like the pinnacle of percussion prowess, Roach gave a clinic that I attended. I was completely awed by what he could accomplish with nothing more than a high-hat.

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