Monday, January 16, 2017

Max Roach: We Insist! Freedom Now Suite

Nat Hentoff, who died on 7 January at age 91, was many things in his long career as a writer and journalist, though he is known best for his work as a jazz critic for The Village Voice for a half-century as well as for the many liner notes he wrote for jazz albums.

He was also the Artists and Repertoire (A&R) director for the Candid label when it was founded in 1960 and signed such creative forces as Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Steve Lacy and others.

Perhaps the most controversial and compelling of the Candid catalogue issues, however, was Max Roach's We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, which assgined co-compositional credit to Oscar Brown, Jr.  Recorded at Nola Penthouse Sound Studio in New York  on 31 August and 6 September 1960 and released that December, it is said that Hentoff was warned not to release the recording as it would stir up racial emotions that would be destructive to him, the label and to Roach.

It's a fortunate situation that Hentoff persevered.  It's even more fortunate that Roach had the foresight, creativity and drive to get this album made and that he assembled a stellar roster of musicians to carry out the vision he developed with Brown.

Roach and Brown were specifically motivated by the sit-ins by black students earlier in 1960--an iconic photo of one of these is conspicuously used as the front cover for the album.  Hentoff wrote in his notes, "jazz musicians, normally apolitical and relatively unmindful of specific of social movements, were also unprecedentedly stimulated" by the events of the year.

Whether his assertions about the lack of political and social awareness among jazz musicians is reasonable, Hentoff went on to say that "one of the jazzmen who had long been strongly involved emotionally in the movements for integration in America and national autonomy in Agrica was Max Roach."

Roach and Brown were already collaborating on a work designed for presentation at the 1963 centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation when Roach took the project in a different direction, apparently without Brown being notified.

What resulted was a carefully crafted set of pieces detailing the black experience in Africa and America.  Side A that reflected the situation of black people in bondage and oppression, through the tune "Driva' Man" with a notable Brown lyric about slave drivers and "Freedom Day", which reflects the sentiments felt by blacks after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Side B reflected contemporary concerns with "All Africa" and the independence movements sweeping the continent at that time, reflected viscerally with Nigerian percussionist Michael Olatunji's masterful work and vocalist Abbey Lincoln's recitation of African tribal names while Olatunji responds in Yoruba, and "Tears for Johannesburg," referring specifically to the horrors of apartheid in South Africa.

Not only did Roach put together an outstanding program of musical works to make his musical statement ring strong and true, but he brought together some amazing musicians.  Lincoln, who soon became his wife, turns in a series of astonishing vocal performances, bringing strength, dignity and, importantly, a woman's prominent role to the proceedings.  Much was said about her anguished and powerfully emotive screams, cries and moans during the middle section of the staggering "Triptych" as Roach masterfully used the drum kit as an analog to her vocalizations.  But, it sounds totally natural and right in the context.

Roach, who could easily have relied on his own profound skills as a drummer to propel the work, wisely brought in Olatunji to give a different percussive perspective and a directly African one to make this work stronger.  Raymond Mantillo and Tomas du Vall also provide percussive color.

The horns include a trio of masters, including the underappreciated Julian Priester on trombone--his work alone on "Freedom Day" is a revelation.  Booker Little died in 1961 at only 23 of uremia, but he was already a stunning trumpeter and an associate of Roach and Eric Dolphy (the live recordings Dolphy and Little recorded at the Five Spot in July 1961, just a few months before Little's death are classics).  His work is uniformly excellent here.

Then there was the wild card--Coleman Hawkins, who rose to fame in the 1920s and whose recording of "Body and Soul" in 1939 is a landmark of tenor playing, brings his brilliance to full power on "Driva' Man".  Credit should also be given to the relatively unknown Walter Benton and his excellent tenor work on "Freedom Day" and bassist James Schenck, of whom there is almost nothing known, but whose playing with Roach is excellent.

This listener happens to be reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom and today is, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so the timing of highlighting this remarkable recording seems more than appropriate.

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