By Devon “Doc” Wendell
Max Roach + 4 was recorded after tragic circumstances. In June of 1956, Clifford Brown, pianist Richie Powell and Powell’s wife Nancy were killed in a horrific car crash in Pennsylvania, ending the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet forever. Prior to Brown’s and Powell’s deaths, the quintet consisted of Clifford Brown on trumpet, Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone (Rollins replaced Harold Land in late 1955), Richie Powell on piano, George Morrow on bass an Max Roach on drums. They were the hottest band of the “new” hard-bop era. The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet never abandoned its deep bebop roots, in fact they celebrated them and took the music to new heights. The band cooked but had an unmistakable warmth that was infectious.
The death of Brown and Powell struck a huge blown to the jazz community. Roach was devastated but was still under contract with Emarcy Records and he wasn’t the kind of artist who would stop playing under any circumstances. And “Brownie” would have wanted the music to continue and grow.
Finding a “replacement” for the virtuosic Brown would not be easy but Roach knew that he could more than depend on bebop trumpet veteran and master Kenny Dorham. Dorham had this uncanny ability to fit into any jazz setting. He played in bands with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Mercer Ellington, Bud Powell, The original Jazz Messengers, Thelonious Monk, Hank Mobley, Phil Woods, Joe Henderson all the way into the avant-garde era of the ’60s with players such as Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill. Dorham was the perfect man for the job. He had also previously recorded extensively with both Roach and Rollins.
Roach recruited Ray Bryant and Billy Wallace to fill the piano spot left by Powell and George Morrow remained the bass player for this new quintet.
On September 17, 19, and 20th of 1956 and March 20th of 1957, Max and the band went into the studio to cut Max Roach + 4 which resulted in one of the hardest swinging, slyest and funkiest bop albums ever recorded.
On tracks like George Russell’s “Ezz-Thetic”, Roach’s “Dr. Deep Free-Zee”, “Mr. X” and Cole Porter’s “Just One Of Those Things”, it’s evident that all of these trailblazers are in their prime. Sonny Rollins’ playing is hard, frenetic and imaginative, Dorham’s trumpet lines are sweet, fluid and sublimely lyrical, Ray Bryant’s piano style is restrained but tasteful whereas Billy Wallace plays a lot like Bud Powell and Art Tatum. Roach takes plenty of incredible drum solos throughout the album. He solos even more on this recording than on any of the previous Brown/Roach Quintet albums.
There had already been so many renditions of “Body And Soul” up to that point but the one on this record shows off the exquisite ballad work of both Rollins and Dorham who compliment each other perfectly.
On Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘n’ You”, the band stays true to Dizzy’s original arrangement. The highlight of the album is the dizzying, twisted and nasty reading of the Duke Ellington and Irving Mills classic “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” which features some of Rollins’, Dorham’s , and Roach’s most inspired playing. The band is on fire, proving the whole point of this jazz standard.
The finest ballad on the album is a tender and original rendition of Edward Heyman and Victor Young’s “Love Letters.” Rollins, Dorham, and Wallace dive deep into the song’s melody and stretch it out beautifully, finding new harmonic ideas in the process. Dorham’s cornet work is divine.
The album closes with Ray Bryant’s original “Minor Trouble” which is a bop barn burner supreme. this is pure bebop at its best. Something special would always occur when Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham would get together and blow and this is no exception.
Max Roach + 4 is an era defining album that proves that nothing can stop the power, energy, love and devotion of jazz.