Review Summary: spontaneous control..
Coming in between We Insist!
, his love letter to the Civil Rights Movement, and Money Jungle
a highly-stylish atmospheric masterpiece and collaboration with Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington,
Max Roach's 1961 LP Percussion Bitter Sweet
was a re-affirmation,
another feather in the cap of a man who had already emerged as one of jazz' most intrepid and involved bandleaders, as disciplined and skilled as he could be reckless. Released on Impulse!,
the jazz haven that Trane built, Percussion
sees Roach marry pliancy and magnitude,
splicing vanguard free jazz havoc into his vigorous hard bop mode.
Like any astute, knowing bandleader, Roach lets every moving piece of the septet he'd assembled breathe
both separately and in collaborative spasms,
and though his name sits front and center on the marquee, Eric Dolphy's presence looms heavy over Percussion
Dolphy had always encompassed a nonpareil space in the genre, unafraid to dive into disassembled free jazz and classical,
all the while keeping his feet firmly planted in traditionalist tonalities.
Here, he locks into a deft and distinct dynamic with Roach's turbulent rhythm, equal parts coalition and an act of mutiny,
and aside from their tandem arrays, there are moments when Percussion
like an unstoppable force gnashing against an immovable object,
Dolphy's propensity for chaotic avant-garde transitions slamming against Roach's brawny bebop modus.
It creates a sense of errant intensity that persists through the record's run.
Pieces like "Mama" and the endlessly anxious "Tender Warriors"
feel infinitely restless, lurching into every open space, dogged and shambolic
and somehow perfectly calibrated at the same time.
Booker Little's trumpet torches opener "Garvey's Ghost." Coming off stints with Coltrane and Dolphy, as both entered
their experimental phases, on Percussion
, Little gets to flaunt his own empiricisms,
playing around with pitch and syncopation. He goes wind-drunk on "Mendacity," as Abbey Lincoln
(then Roach's wife) croons soulful couplets, until Roach snaps the song in two, ending it on
a shattered stretch of crazed percussion. The LP would become Little's last recorded material, as he would
soon die tragically of uremia, at the age of 23.
Roach closes off Percussion
on a jaunty note. "Man from South Africa" is as ardent and moody as the rest
of the record, but feels neither as tense nor morphing. The horns and Dolphy's flute slide in two-step,
as the arhythmic congas fade the piece out on a twitching note. That frivolous instant seals off
Percussion Bitter Sweet
on a cheeky wink, a little flourish to cap off a passionate
exercise in gutsy mastery.