Monday 18 March 2024

The Max Roach Group with Abbey Lincoln - 'Driva' Man'

I think the first revolutionary new compact disc that I ever bought was Max Roach's We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. It was cut-price in some second-hand emporium staffed by supercilious young men on the claustrophobic isle of Jersey. I was working on some training project that was draining me of the will to live, so it could have been a reward for getting through the week. I knew that Max Roach was probably one of the five greatest drummers in the annals of jazz, that he soloed far too much for my liking, but that he co-led a marvellous hard-bop quintet with the ill-starred Clifford Brown. So it was a strange choice in some respects, but maybe the cover intrigued me: three black civil rights protesters sitting warily at a bar surveyed by a white barman in a bleached white outfit with a black bow tie and the chilling look of someone who would shop any uppity 'coloured boys' to the Ku Klux Klan. Or maybe he was simply scared of the inevitable fracas to come.

The album was made in 1960, a time when, in the words of A. Philip Randolph, a revolution 'is unfurling in lunch counters, buses, libraries and schools... Masses of Negroes are marching onto the stage of history and demanding their freedom now!' Apart from being a musician who had served his apprenticeship in, among others, Charlie Parker's classic quintet of the late '40s, Max Roach was one of the most committed musicians of any genre to the cause of civil rights. This seemed to come as a surprise to Coleman Hawkins, who was recruited to play tenor sax on the album. Apparently, he was so intrigued by the suite that he would ask the leader, 'Did you really write this, Max?' Indeed he did, and in part with Oscar Brown jr., an archetypal politically active hipster of the time who was noted for putting (witty) words to such classic numbers as 'Afro Blue', 'Work Song', 'Watermelon Man' and Bobby Timmons' 'Dat Dere'.

Among the other notables featured on We Insist! were Michael Olatunji, the Nigerian percussionist, Booker Little, another brilliant but ill-starred trumpeter, and vocalist Abbey Lincoln, whom Roach would marry two years after the album's release. She, too, had never been a favourite of mine. On the records she made pre-1960, she seemed to lack an identifiable personality as a jazz vocalist. But here she sings throughout with the righteous rage and fire of a Nina Simone. 'I feel this,' she said of Freedom Now Suite, 'and I've also learned a lot from Max Roach in recent months about being me when I sing.'

So here she is being very much her on Belgian TV in 1964. It's a different group, but she, the consistently elegant Chicago-born tenor saxophonist, Clifford Jordan, and husband Max in particular are electrifying. There's no piano on the album, but here a pianist with the improbable name of Coleridge Perkinson starts things off conventionally before being rudely undercut by Roach's uncompromising opening outburst and Eddie Khan's mournful bowed bass. The effect is as unsettling as the bitter irony of Abbey Lincoln's quote from Cole Porter's 'Love For Sale', which seems almost to deride Jordan's lyrical obbligato that precedes it. And then we're into the song itself, or maybe 'chant' is the better word, with Lincoln singing with angry clarity to the sole accompaniment of her tambourine. 'Ain't but two things on my mind/Driva' Man and quittin' time...' At which point the band, and particularly Roach, take up the staccato beat and you realise, if you haven't already done so, that it's the rhythm of both the 'field holler' and the vicious lash of the 'cat o' nine tails'. Clifford Jordan then solos brilliantly over the same lacerating rhythm before ceding to Roach himself for what must be one of the simplest but most integral drum solos ever laid down. In the context of the number's theme, it serves as a stunning and chilling conclusion to a truly visceral number.

Listening to 'Driva' Man' over the years, I've often thought of the chain gang in Cool Hand Luke, overseen by the guard in Stetson hat and mirror shades. But his icy authority was nothing of course to the Driva' Man that Oscar Brown jr. wrote of: the brutal white overseer in slavery days, who would force women into sexual servitude and punish viciously any perceived indiscretion – and with double the ferocity in the case of an escapee brought back by one of the 'patrollers' that Abbey Lincoln sings of.

She and her husband stayed together until 1970, but both remained true to their artistic and political visions (even if Brown would leave the Communist party on deciding that he 'just to black to be red'). Abbey Lincoln managed to combine her civil rights activism and her music with an intermittent acting career (she had a role in Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues, for example). She died in 2010 at 80, three years after her former husband, who married his lifelong pedagogic calling (he was professor of music for many years at the University of Massachusetts) to his ever-questing musical experimentations, including the writing of music for plays with the great American dramatist, Sam Shepard. One of the great elder statesmen of jazz, his career tailed off with the onset of dementia.  

Whether this example of their collaborative work is 'cool' in the sense that has guided my choices throughout, I don't know. It's hard to stay cool and detached in the face of so much barely contained anger and allied emotions. There's a remarkable version of 'Triptych' from the same album and the same Belgian TV broadcast, but it's almost too much to take, with Roach's rapid-fire drumming and Lincoln's agonised screaming suggesting the mayhem of the South African Sharpeville massacres. Cool or not, this live version of 'Driva' Man' is surely one of the most clever and compelling performances you're ever likely to find on the net.

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