Thursday, October 13, 2011

October 13: Max Roach, "Garvey's Ghost"

Artist: Max Roach
Song: "Garvey's Ghost"
Album: Percussion Bitter Sweet
Year: 1961

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As one inspects the long history of jazz music, in the case of almost every one of the so-called "greats" of the genre, there is one factor that runs constant.  Though the amount of impact these luminaries had on a wide range of styles, in almost every case, their lifespan was tragically short, and there is a constant statement of "what could have been" with many of these musical giants.  However, among all of the icons of jazz, there is one that reigns above almost all others in terms of both impact and longevity, and there has simply never been another musician that can measure up to the great Max Roach.  For more than half a century, it was Roach that defined the percussive side of jazz music, and from bop to cool to modal to any other style within jazz that one can find, the presence and influence of Max Roach can easily be found as well.  Yet while he could easily master any style of jazz music, there is no question that Roach was at his best within the be-bop form, and whether he was backing some of the biggest names in jazz, or creating his own amazing compositions as a leader himself, Max Roach is second to none in the world of jazz music.  Due to both his longevity as well as his unsurpassed level of talent, his catalog is filled with countless performances that stand today as absolutely legendary.  However, to fully grasp his talents as both a player, a composer, and a band leader, one need look no further than Max Roach's brilliant 1961 recording, "Garvey's Ghost."

The moment that "Garvey's Ghost" kicks in, it instant sets itself aside from almost everything one might perceive about the music of Max Roach.  "Garvey's Ghost" quickly expands to a massive wall of sound that in many ways has more in common with the compositions of the likes of Sun Ra, as opposed to the more "traditional" jazz performers with whom Roach had played.  Yet it is this expansive musical journey that makes the song so amazing, and it is led by the saxophone of none other than Eric Dolphy.  Without question one of Dolphy's finest performances, one can hear a brilliant interplay between his playing and that of Roach, and the chemistry between the two remains largely unmatched to this day.  The trumpet of Booker Little adds a fantastic depth to the track, as he shows the perfect level of balance between over-blowing and simply letting the music lead his playing.  Working largely in the back of the mix, pianist Mal Waldron is able to expose the more subtle sections of the arrangement, and it is the way that his playing fills some of the "open spaces" that pushes "Garvey's Ghost" beyond other jazz recordings.  However, in many ways, it is the vocal from Abbey Lincoln that proves to be the most intriguing aspect of the track, as she proves the instrumental nature of the human voice, and it serves as the ideal finishing touch to "Garvey's Ghost," making it a truly unforgettable musical experience.

However, when speaking of anything do to with Max Roach, it is impossible to overstate the talent and presence of the rhythm section, and he found one of his finest counterparts in the form of bassist Art Davis.  Finding a wide variety of paces and tempos to work alongside the percussion, it is Davis that gives "Garvey's Ghost" a great deal of movement, as his playing pushes the song in every direction.  Yet there is no question that throughout the entire track, it is the drumming of Max Roach that is the finest aspect of the track.  Performing with an amazing level of passion, it is recordings such as this that prove that truly talented drummers can be just as expressive and emotive though their instrument as any other player.  Seeming to seamlessly change up the pace and flow of the song as he feels, it is the textures and cadences that Roach throws which gives "Garvey's Ghost" such a fantastic overall mood, and there are few drummers from any point in history that have shown even remotely similar precision.  Along with the pairing of Davis, on "Garvey's Ghost" Roach is joined by Carlos Valdez on conga and Carlos Eugenio on cowbell, and the trio are able to create rhythms upon rhythms in a manner that was largely unprecedented at the time.  Yet throughout all of these rhythms and tempos, Roach maintains a firm grip on the core of the composition, and it is the way that he pulls the entire band along with him that makes "Garvey's Ghost," as well as cements his legacy as one of the finest band leaders in history.

Though in modern times, drummers are largely thought to be of some lesser musical talent than their bandmates, there is no question that those who excel at their instrument are easily on the same level as the finest guitarists on the planet.  This trend can be seen all across the entire history of music, and there was no other performer that made this point quite like Max Roach.  As one inspects the "greatest" jazz recordings in history, it is almost amusing to see just how many of these were created with the assistance of Roach's drumming, and there are few performers of any instrument that have as large a recorded catalog as Roach.  Yet it is the distinctive and innovative style that he shows on every track that made Max Roach perhaps the most "in demand" drummer in history, and to experience his true genius, one need look no further than his own recordings as a band leader.  It is the lack of any musical restraint that he gains as a leader which enables his compositions to become so unique from those of his peers, and one can truly hear a cross-section of sounds and influences with these songs.  The heavy presence of an almost psychedelic, heavily experimental sound, combined with clear African and spiritual roots, all mixed together with the core of the "bop" sound would serve as an influence for countless later performers, and it is much the reason that even after more than half a century, there is no other jazz recording that measures up to Max Roach's 1961 masterpiece, "Garvey's Ghost."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is great article, but I just wanted to point out that the saxophone solo is by Clifford Jordan, not Eric Dolphy. Mr. Jordan was another unsung hero, who is worth investigating!