Max Roach, 1924-2007

From left: Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus on the cover of Money Jungle

A lot of obits around here lately, huh? I guess we’re waiting for more geniuses to get born. Legendary jazz drummer Max Roach died yesterday, and I won’t waste your time with biography – Wikipedia and the New York Times can fill you in on that (I’ll let you decide which one’s more authoritative) – but I do want to talk about my favorite Roach album, the 1962 Blue Note release Money Jungle.

A trio album with Roach, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus (!), it’s been one of my favorite jazz records for a quite a while. It’s a bit of a rare thing to find Ellington not backed by his orchestra, and as much as I love the swing era, I’d rather hear a small combo than a big band. But jazz is a democracy: this is not an Ellington album any more than it is a Roach album or a Mingus album. Everyone deserves top billing here, and they certainly earn it: take the title track, where Mingus goes nuts with desperate high-fret machine-gunning before slipping back to the lower register and letting Roach take center stage.

The drummer is in fine form on “Caravan,” which finds Ellington exploring the same moody territory he did on prior compositions such as “Mood Indigo.” Roach lays down a heavy opening line before taking to the cymbals as the song abruptly shifts sections and styles, the thick skin-pounding spilling into deft, off-beat taps that never interfere with the on-point cymbal work. Each of these songs is fearlessly adventurous and strikingly ambitious; lucky for us, the talent assembled here pulls them all off without a hitch. Roach undoubtedly has hours upon hours of releases for us to sort through and appreciate, but I can’t imagine a better tribute to his legacy than this, hearing the man at the height of his powers performing with two of the greatest jazz musicians of all time.

Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach – “Caravan”: mp3
Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach – “Money Jungle”: mp3

(Buy Money Jungle from Amazon)


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