Max Roach was in a really interesting place in the early 1980s. A pathbreaking and impossibly influential drummer from the moment he emerged on the bebop scene in the 1940s, his landmark mid-1950s recordings with Clifford Brown, and his politically charged albums of the early to mid-1960s, revealed him to be a ferociously talented composer and conceptualist as well as a master of the kit. In the 1970s, he formed a quartet with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, saxophonist Billy Harper, and bassist Reggie Workman that recorded a few live albums composed of radically extended pieces, sometimes taking up both sides of an LP. He also performed in duo with Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and Archie Shepp, and formed the percussion orchestra M’Boom.
At the end of the decade, he changed up the membership of the quartet. Bridgewater stayed, but Odean Pope and Calvin Hill replaced Harper and Workman. After three albums, (Picture in a Frame, Chattahoochee Red, and In the Light), the membership began to fluctuate; Tyrone Brown took over the bass chair, and Dayne Armstrong was the saxophonist when Pope wasn’t available.
Beginning in 1983, Roach undertook a fascinating experiment: he began to pair his quartet with a string quartet (using the traditional instrumentation of two violins, viola, and cello) both in the studio and in concert. He made four albums between 1984 and 1987 using this approach; on 1984’s Survivors, he dispensed with the jazz band entirely, recording with just himself and the string quartet. Each of these albums contains thrilling music that sounds like nothing else, then or now. We’ll discuss each title below.
Survivors is a bifurcated album. The first side is taken up by the nearly 22-minute title piece, which is also the only track to feature the string quartet: Guillermo Figueroa and Donald Bauch on violins, Louise Schulman on viola, and Christopher Finckel on cello. The album’s second side features six solo drum pieces, ranging in length from just over two to nearly six minutes. “Survivors” is a wild listen. Roach’s drumming is stunningly precise. His snare work has almost the same parade-ground precision as Billy Cobham‘s, but there’s a looseness there that’s not present in Cobham’s nearly airtight machine-gun barrages. Roach lets the notes breathe, no matter how fast they arrive, and at times he seems to be almost tumbling across the kit, without ever losing control. The strings aren’t playing melodies most of the time, though; they’re offering staccato, sawing lines and sudden one-note stabs, feeding fuel into Roach’s unquenchable fire. The six drum solos that make up the rest of the album feel, rather unavoidably, like one long piece, though there are differences between them; his fondness for 3/4 time shows up in “The Drum Also Waltzes,” and there’s an ominous, suspenseful quality to the last piece, “The Smoke That Thunders.” But ultimately, this is 21 minutes of ultra-precise solo drumming, broken into sections, and that’s either for you or it’s not.
Roach’s next album was recorded in January 1985. The Max Roach Double Quartet consisted of Bridgewater on trumpet, Pope on tenor sax, Brown on electric bass, and the Uptown String Quartet, with John Williams and Cecelia Hobbs on violins, Roach’s daughter Maxine on viola, and Eileen Folsom on cello. On the opening track, Ray Mantilla played congas. Easy Winners featured four compositions: one by Bridgewater, one by Pope, one by Roach, and the title track, which was a Scott Joplin piece arranged by Maxine Roach. “Bird Says” was written by the trumpeter, and he gives himself a lot of room to run, but it’s fundamentally a high-speed bebop burner, with the strings functioning almost like a big band horn section, coming in with fierce stabs that drive the energy level up even higher than Roach and Mantilla can. “Sis,” Pope’s tune, is a ballad, and the string quartet is all alone for the first half of the piece. When the horns and drums come in around the three-minute mark, the music has the lushness of a Woody Shaw performance. It’s quite beautiful. The album’s second half, though, is insane. “A Little Booker” is a nearly 14-minute sprint that’s like bebop thrash. Roach’s drumming is a sustained act of demolition, and Pope never seems to stop soloing, even as the strings come in again and again, providing anchor points and melodic accents. He doesn’t care. He’s on a tear, and the drummer is pacing him the whole time. The album ends with its title piece, which features only the string quartet, and Joplin’s deceptively simple, repetitive melody is perfect for them; it has an almost Mozartian quality, a lighthearted beauty that’s the perfect capper to this fascinating disc.
The two long pieces from Easy Winners, “A Little Booker” and “Bird Says,” are re-interpreted as side-long workouts on Live at Vielharmonie, also released in 1985. The Swedenborg String Quartet (Lars Holm and Ulrica Jannson on violins, Anders Lindgren on viola, and Kerstin Elmquist on cello) was the support team, and the primary quartet had undergone some membership changes, too: Dayne Armstrong was on tenor sax, and Phil Bower was on electric bass. Bridgewater is the star of the show. His solos are searing bolts of white light, flaring up and staying bright for an extraordinary length of time, with the strings mostly serving as background accents. One small, interesting effect pops up a time or two. Armstrong seems to have a reverb pedal, or he just occasionally hits a note with such force that it booms through the hall in a way the rest of his playing, which is straightforward long-winded freebop, doesn’t. These performances are good, and it shows that Roach and company could execute this concept live, but the album’s more of a footnote to Easy Winners than a vital stand-alone work. Think of it as a bonus disc.
Bright Moments, the final album in this sequence, was released in 1987. It featured Roach, Bridgewater, Pope, and Brown, accompanied by a revamped version of the Uptown String Quartet, with Diane Monroe and Lesa Terry on violins, Maxine Roach on viola, and Zela Terry on cello. The title track is a version of the Rahsaan Roland Kirk composition, and the ensemble also adapts Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly” and trombonist Steve Turre’s “Double Delight.” Pope contributes “Elixir Suite” and Brown offers a “Tribute to Duke and Mingus.” It’s a more tasteful and refined album than Easy Winners; it really has the feel of a jazz album “with strings.” The compositions are overtly bluesy and swinging, with Roach using brushes a lot and keeping the rhythm steady and smooth. On “Tribute to Duke and Mingus” in particular, he’s in an almost pure timekeeping role, only throwing in the occasional rippling cymbal flourish as Pope takes long solos, occasionally teaming up with Bridgewater to restate the melody, and Brown’s electric bass throbs and bounces. The string quartet isn’t really doing any traditional “string quartet” stuff; they’re just four string players, all playing in unison with no countermelodies or anything else. On “Double Delight,” though, they really come into their own, almost serving as the lead voice — the violins swoop and sting, with the horns playing bop lines and then trading fours with Roach, who’s in explosive form, as though making up for the restraint he showed throughout the rest of the album.
I don’t know why, but these albums aren’t on streaming services, even though other Roach releases on Black Saint are. You can get them on CD, though; Survivors and Bright Moments are included in the first of his two Complete Remastered Recordings On Black Saint & Soul Note boxes, while Easy Winners and Live at Vielharmonie are included in the second. Everything else in those boxes is great, too; the first includes an album of duos with Anthony Braxton and two CDs of duos with Cecil Taylor, while the second includes three more traditional quartet albums (no strings) and the fascinatingly bizarre It’s Christmas Again, on which Roach recites two long poems over music by the band. It is not an album of Christmas music.