Song of the Day: Max Roach “For Big Sid”
Max Roach: just saying his name makes my hair stand up! This monumental drum solo track comes from the Drums Unlimited album, which was released on Atlantic Records in 1966. Max dedicated this solo to the inimitable Sidney “Big Sid” Catlett, truly one of the world’s most versatile, musical, and dynamic drummers. As primary influence on Roach, he sings Catlett‘s highest praises in the best way possible…. through his drums! This solo, along with Roach‘s many others, has been studied and quoted by more drummers than I can count. His playing is eternally fresh, alive, vital, powerful, dramatic, lyrical, and most importantly, musical!
I am most honored, blessed, and grateful that I was able to see Max Roach play many times during what would be the last 15 years of his life. From the first time I saw him in 1990, through the early 2000s, when he began performing less due to health complications, experiencing his mastery and magic first hand was absolutely life-changing for me. The first time I saw him was in the auditorium of Wild Lake High School in Columbia, MD, where I grew up. He was with his ‘Double Quartet‘ at the time, consisting of a traditional Jazz Quartet, which was combined with a string quartet lead by his daughter Maxine. As a wily teenager, I snuck into the early-afternoon rehearsal and sound check for their performance that was happening later that evening. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and proceeded to have my mind completely blown and my soul uplifted in ways that I simply wasn’t prepared for at the time.
At one point during the sound-check, the sound engineer mentioned to Max that his quartet was overpowering the String Quartet a bit and that he would make some adjustments on the sound board to compensate for the imbalance. Max calmly told him that that wouldn’t be necessary. He proceeded to adjust the volume of his playing, as if turning down a volume knob, without sacrificing any of the feeling, the fire, or the dynamics in his playing. That is some Jedi material right there, considering that we’re talking about four limbs adjusting precisely in connection to his musical soul.
I later learned of some of the exercises that Roach practiced to achieve this kind of wizardry and they are the simplest, yet most challenging I’ve ever encountered. Try tapping your hands and your feet to the exact same tempo (try starting with quarter notes at around 70 BPM, but feel free to experiment with other sub-divisions and tempos) at the exact same moderate volume level. Then, one by one, choose a particular limb, and much like using a volume knob, gradually adjust the volume of that limb up to the highest level and then to the lowest level that you can without changing the volume or the tempo of the other three limbs…. Uh huh, yeah, good luck with that to drummers of ANY experience level. I could go on for days, but I’ve got to wrap this up!
Max Roach graced this planet from 1924 until his departure from this world in 2007. In that time, he literally revolutionized the instrument known as the drum kit, as part of a larger musical revolution known as Bebop. Throughout his life, he never stopped exploring, expanding, innovating and inspiring. I’ll leave you with a poem from the great poet Sonia Sanchez, which was written for Max. The last line from this poem is etched upon his tombstone….
One. Nothing ends. Every blade of grass remembering your sound, your sound exploding in the universe. Return to Earth in prayer. As you drummed, your hands kept reaching for God. The morning sky so lovely, imitates your laughter.
You came, warrior, clear, your music kissing our spines, feet tapping, singing impeach our blood. You came, drumming sweet life on sails of flesh. Your fast beat riding the air, settled in our bones.
Your drums soloing our breaths into the beat – unbeat – unto the beat – unbeat – unto the beat – unbeat. Your hands shimmering on the legs of rain, your hands, shimmering on the legs of rain