Caught by the River

Caught By The Reaper – Max Roach

27th December 2007

Max Roach, January 10, 1924 – August 16, 2007

When you think of bebop, your first thought is probably those fast horn lines hurtling past your ears faster than you know how to process them. Listen again though and you’ll hear the other sound, perhaps the more important one – and that’s the speeding hiss of the hi-hat.
Now there are three great men – Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey and Max Roach – who are credited with forging this rapid new rhythm, and of blowing the respectabilites of swing out the door, but only one of them was king, and that was Max Roach.
First and foremost that was because of his genius playing – check his work with Bird or with Miles on the ‘Birth Of The Cool’ recordings – but it was also because of who he was as a man. He was a radical, a militant, an innovator, who ricocheted through life, adapting along the way just like the music he was making.
His early records as a leader, in a quintet with Clifford Brown in the early ’50s, are mesmerising examples of the rapport and fast attack of post-bop. When Brown’s life was tragically cut short by a car accident in 1956, Roach took that as his cue to explore elsewhere.
In the early ’60s, he became immersed in the civil rights movement and made the extraordinary ‘We Insist! Freedom Now Suite’, a radicalized, epically percussive masterpiece that had a massive influence on the political urgency of the avant-garde New Thing that was to follow. Two years later ‘It’s Time’ followed on Impulse – a brash, choral, psychedelic headrush that still startles every time it floods from your speakers.
For Roach, such adventures and experiments were what it was all about. It was something he kept up throughout his life. One of the last times he played London, he had to be carried on stage by two friends, but when he got behind the kit, he immediately shed decades.
He died in August of this year, aged 83. If you don’t have one of his records, you should. Roach was a one-off.

James Oldham