Review Summary: Body and soul.
With the current generation being some 60 years removed from the prime era of jazz music, a stigma has grown around the genre - the stigma that jazz is, so they say, hard to get into
. This stigma is problematic because two every different connotations can be derived from it. The first, and arguably most widely accepted, is that the music itself is difficult to consume for the untrained ear. Allow me to be blunt and say: unless you’re referring to the very specific subgenre of jazz that is “free jazz” (which many genre enthusiasts still struggle with as a concept to this day), this is nonsense. Take that idea. Throw it in the trash. Jazz is as easily consumable as any other genre, provided you stay within your limits and don’t dive into the deep end straight away.
Thus enters connotation #2, the correct one: jazz is difficult to get into because it is incredibly hard for people to get their bearings in a genre that practically overflows with recorded output. It is also a genre that, at least in my eyes, requires some contextual understanding. As an example, Kind of Blue
was my first jazz album (aren’t I unique and special), and while I was able to derive much enjoyment out the record, a lot of its genius was lost on me, a veritable jazz noob then (and even still). How was I supposed to know how Miles Davis’s experiments with modality were revolutionary when I had no frame of reference whatsoever?
If you want a proper entry-level jazz album for the ignorant-yet-open-minded listener, one needs to look at two types of records: those that exhibit top-tier ensemble playing, the core of jazz’s vitality, and those that set a gold standard without necessarily being revolutionary. Enter Clifford Brown & Max Roach
, a collaborative effort between one of the hottest trumpet players on the scene and one of the genre’s very best drummers. The Brown & Roach Quintet would only record three albums’ worth of material before Brown’s premature death in a 1956 car accident, but their work left a mark on jazz all the same. What Brown and Roach did during their short time together impacted the theory and prominence of jazz minimally, if at all. The true impact resides in the collaboration.
Disciples of Coltrane might tell you that the point
of jazz, as it were, is to expand tonal horizons in ways even the Schoenbergs of the world had never considered. And there is something to be said for the accomplishments made in that area. But where did Coltrane and the rest get their starts? Cohesive, smooth-as-silk ensemble playing, the like of which is exemplified in this record. The ebb-and-flow dynamic, the interplay between the various musicians: jazz might be stereotyped by some as a soloist-favoring display of virtuosic autofellatio, but these displays of technical brilliance do not exist without the indescribable mental connections that exist between the musicians. One player’s exit is another’s entrance, one player’s dynamic change signals his compatriots to follow him, and so on and so forth.
Clifford Brown & Max Roach
is, generally speaking, a very unassuming jazz record. Nothing here is breaking down barriers, we’re still a good five years removed from modal jazz entering the fray (to say nothing of free jazz). But it is that unassuming nature that acts as part of the record’s appeal. This album is not flashy, but it is maddeningly consistent, and all five players perform exceptionally well. The jazz here is buttery smooth without delving into “cool jazz” territory, the ensemble works in a wonderfully unified way. There is the brightness and pep that defined much of early jazz and big band music, and there is the moodiness that guys like Davis would perfect in the coming years. In many ways, this record falls into a sort of purgatory period between distinct eras of jazz, but that only makes it all the more accessible to the average listener. And again, the important thing to remember is how emphasized the ensemble work is on this album, and as a result, how much this record speaks to the very heart of jazz music.
For fear of delving into out-and-out hyperbole, I shall conclude by saying that there very well may be a better record to recommend the average jazz noob, one that speaks to all of what makes jazz so great while still remaining a very palatable listening experience. I have yet to encounter such a record myself. Either way, you are well-advised to give this a listen.