Recording of February 2013: The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Emarcy Albums

Clifford Brown/Max Roach: The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Emarcy Albums
Clifford Brown, trumpet; Max Roach, drums; Harold Land, Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone; Richie Powell, piano; George Morrow, bass
Mosaic MRLP 3004 (4 LPs). 1954–56/2012. Bob Shad, orig. prod.; Michael Cuscuna, reissue prod.; Ryan Smith, remastering. ADA.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Trumpeter Clifford Brown's death in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on June 26, 1956—his second wedding anniversary—set up an eternity of unanswerables headed by the belief, among many, that had Brownie lived, his star would now be as high as or higher than that of Miles Davis.

The highlight of Brown's too-brief recording career are the sessions that he, drummer Max Roach, and their quintet held in Los Angeles and, later, New York City, between 1954 and 1956, and which produced four albums: Brown and Roach Incorporated, Clifford Brown & Max Roach, Study in Brown, and Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street. They are some of the best-known, most hallowed recordings in the bebop canon. This set's producer, Mosaic principal Michael Cuscuna, puts it this way: "Every Brown package you see has Clifford Brown with Strings and the jam sessions with Sarah Vaughan, but those have nothing to do with the work he did with Max Roach and the Quintet. I wanted to focus on those sessions because they were real pioneers of hard bop who are up there with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers." Liner-note author Bob Blumenthal goes a step further, calling them "one of the very greatest strings of small group recordings in jazz history, worthy of consideration alongside the Hot Fives and Sevens of Louis Armstrong and the quintets of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis."

Although this is bebop, an idiom more commonly associated with New York City and East Coast players like Brown and Roach, the drummer formed this quintet on the West Coast in 1954. Born in North Carolina but raised in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Roach, who subbed in Ellington's band while still a teenager, later founded an independent label, Debut Records, with bassist Charles Mingus, and found his most lasting fame as a key member of many small groups led by Charlie Parker. Brown, a Delaware native, honed his trumpet chops in the jazz clubs of nearby Philadelphia. Influenced by trumpeter Fats Navarro, another virtuoso who died young, Brown played with R&B bandleader Chris Powell, the big band of Lionel Hampton, and then in one of the shortest-lived yet most potent lineups of drummer Art Blakey's ever-changing Jazz Messengers, with alto player Lou Donaldson, pianist Horace Silver, and bassist Curley Russell.

In early 1954, with that band, Brown was part of one of the seminal bebop/hard-bop statements: Blakey's A Night at Birdland Vols.1 & 2, which also features stage intros by the inimitable Pee Wee Marquette. Later that year, after a series of players, including saxophonist Sonny Stitt, came and went in their fledgling quintet, Brown and Roach, who'd met years before in Philadelphia, found players who fit their vision in tenor-saxophonist Harold Land, pianist Richie Powell, and bassist George Morrow.

These sessions' mix of standards and promising, bluesy originals, some of the latter by the underrated Powell-who died with Brown, and was perennially overshadowed by his more famous brother, Bud-boded well for the fireworks to come. The arrangements, perhaps best heard in a wonderfully unrecognizable "What Is This Thing Called Love?," are among the most imaginative of that period in jazz. And the inevitable rounds of solos are almost uniformly breathtaking. Brown's fierce, unpredictable attacks, and his natural gift for fluid, silvery, unerring phrasing, remain jaw-dropping throughout. Capable of screeching high runs, he also possessed a lyricism that's never been equaled among jazz trumpeters. The superiority of his seemingly endless stream of ideas and his technical brilliance never outshine his buoyant tone and infallible sense of time.

Roach is polish and tastefulness personified. His sense of rhythm is remarkable and multilayered, his opening flourishes are inventive in the extreme, and his relationship with the cymbals changed jazz drumming forever. Morrow is steady, and Richie Powell is quiet but effective, weaving detailed miniatures in his solos that still ride a groove. The two horn players, very different in approach and result, are spectacular. Harold Land is fuller-toned and more understated. The great Sonny Rollins, the last member of these sessions still alive, was raised in New York City, had already played and recorded with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and had tangled with drug problems by the time of the January–February 1956 sessions that became the Basin Street album; his playing, in contrast to Land's, is all brashness and power.

Two tracks from the group's very first recording session—held August 2, 1954, at the Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, but which ended up as the first tracks of their second album, Clifford Brown & Max Roach—show that the magic was there from the beginning. In "Delilah," whose opening is nearly as famous in bebop history as that of Miles Davis's "So What," the exotic flavor, not unlike "A Night in Tunisia," allows this most expressive of bebop outfits to spin a smoky mood. In the next track, "Parisian Thoroughfare," the five shift into higher gear, painting a sonic portrait of jumpy, chaotic city life that benefits from a round of easygoing solos, especially from Land and his warm, fat tone. "The Blues Walk," another instantly recognizable bebop classic and a tune recorded many times under different names, has never been played with as much gusto and verve as it is here. The happy accident of Rollins replacing Land for the sparkling final pair of sessions, released as Basin Street, is the exclamation point for this band. In Powell's "Gertrude's Bounce," whose melody is similar to that of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," the two double the theme with irrepressible spirits before cutting loose in the kind of virtuosic solos that put both among the greatest instrumental voices in all of jazz.

In the not-too-distant past, Mosaic Records regularly churned out beautiful and completist boxes of jazz recordings, organized by date of recording session, that focused on an artist's output either from a single label or during a specific period; for example, The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman and His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945–1947) or Classic Earl Hines Sessions 1928–1945. In the beginning, Mosaic issued heavyweight LPs, then turned (like the rest of the record business) to CDs in the mid-1980s, and now (again like the rest of the business) has returned to selling LPs. As with all Mosaic black boxes, CD or LP, the sound here is transparent, three-dimensional, and richly expressive. Cuscuna says that one of the keys to this set's sound quality is that the sources used were all analog tape. For the first three original albums listed above, the analog master tapes were in good enough condition to be used; only Basin Street was remastered from a second-generation master tape, made in 1961.

"Nineteen sixty-one is important because there were still engineers in those days who could make nearly perfect analog-to-analog tape transfers." Outtakes from these sessions that appeared on earlier CD reissues were left off because, for those takes, only digital sources were available. According to Cuscuna, aside from "a little tweaking," nothing was done to the music, and the LPs were pressed at RTI, in Camarillo, California. The booklet, while thinner than past Mosaic publications, is still classy and informative. Like every other label, Mosaic suffered through the immense convulsions endured by the music business over the past decade, but is now happily back on its game with the release of several exciting new sets: Charles Mingus: Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964–65; Duke Ellington: The Complete 1932–1940 Brunswick, Columbia, and Master Recordings—and now, The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Emarcy Albums.—Robert Baird

jrmandude's picture

Thanks for this review.  Is there a good CD version of this stuff out (at a price for only the mildly fanatic)?

Et Quelle's picture

This story has so many twists and turns. Then everything is followed up by a plethera of talented jazz artists. This will be my first LP. The trumpet is my favorite jazz instrument.