Plenty of jazz musicians have long careers; Roach’s long career was full of a persistent drive toward virtuosity, innovation, and integrity. There was never a time, from the mid-40s to his death, when his name did not carry with it a frisson of higher-ness. For starters, his higher drummer-skills of independent limbs, precision, speed, surprise, thematic development. And beyond that, a higher vision: if jazz has come to be understood as an independent, hard-to-co-opt kind of art in which musicians of different time-periods and aesthetic stripes have much to teach each other—more than business people and sometimes even more than audiences—Roach ensured that it would be so.
He was a pioneer in artist-run record labels for jazz, starting Debut records with Charles Mingus in 1952. In 1960, he hired the venerable Coleman Hawkins, 20 years his senior, to play on We Insist! —the spiritual predecessor to this album—when that sort of thing didn’t happen so often. Simply, he was imposing, from his early years of bebop drumming with all its upside-down-ness (off-centered accents, rhythm led from the cymbals) to the second half of his working life, when he collaborated with playwrights, choreographers, classical composers, gospel choirs, and video artists; ran an all-percussion group called M’Boom; and performed indelible duo performances with Anthony Braxton, Dizzy Gillespie, and Cecil Taylor, among others.
But he did have a time of particular brilliance. It was from the mid-50s to the mid-60s, the first stretch of time when he conceived of himself as a composer and bandleader. After finishing studies in composition and theory at the Manhattan School of Music, he founded a band with the trumpeter Clifford Brown in 1954; for a couple of years, until Brown’s death in 1956, it was dazzling and confident, as good as jazz got. He began to conceive of his drumming within concerto-like settings. He moved decidedly toward rhythms that were unusual for jazz, like the 5/4 of “Driva Man” on We Insist! and the 7/4 of “Man From South Africa” on this album. He worked with, and married, Abbey Lincoln, an American jazz singer whose work is still teaching listeners how to listen, and how to be worthy of her. And he became politicized.
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Percussion Bitter Sweet, recorded in August, 1961, can be understood on its own, a set of dramatic compositions for jazz ensemble with voice and extra percussionists, inspired by themes of Pan-Africanism and social justice. It can also be understood within a family of other records from around the same time which share some of its sound and valences and musical relationships.
The ballad “Mendacity,” I think, is the record’s greatest achievement. Here are Roach’s baleful ensemble chords, setting the mood. Here is one of his exemplary drum solos, beginning with a short roll and then building it into a battery of alternating, purposeful phrases which use the whole of the kit, allowing for the sound of each drum to be revealed and for silences to hang open. The question-and-answer form of the phrases creates the solo’s design; it holds the solo together. Here is the apotheosis of Dolphy, too, his alto-saxophone cries and patterns and pauses, in his best, most relaxed and integrative form. And here is Abbey Lincoln, singing words written by Chips Bayen, in the common meter that would distinguish many of the songs in her future. It is high-minded about American cravenness around politics and race. To call it prescient, in the time of Trump, is to obscure the fact that it might be simply true.
Percussion Bitter Sweet leads you to consider that perhaps Roach couldn’t have made a record less than this in 1961. Certain musicians at certain times are such high-voltage attractors and catalysts, so clear in their sensibilities and so connected to the innovative, argumentative centers of their field, that their best records seem inevitable. They are a result of the person assembling its parts, devising a container, and allowing things to happen.
*You can listen to Percussion Bitter Sweet below: