RYM Top Albums, Entry #1

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ALBUM:            Clifford Brown & Max Roach

ARTIST:            Clifford Brown and Max Roach

YEAR:                1954/5

LENGTH:          42:36

RYM RANK:     #786

RYM RATING: 3.94/5 (average of 927 ratings)

 

And so it begins – or rather, so it began.

Let’s flashback to postwar America: the bomb was dropped, the Nazis were defeated (or were they?), and the Greatest Generation were coming back home in celebratory flocks. Those sex-starved soldiers would produce children in record numbers, consequently creating what would become the Baby Boomer generation (arguably the single most influential force modern popular music, as this list will find out). Accommodations for these large families were conveniently plentiful, being that Roosevelt’s expenditures for both the New Deal and the war-effort had created a prosperous middle-class ripe for consumerist habits.

On top of that, the nuclear age saw technology evolve at a tremendously rapid pace and innovations were to be enjoyed in nearly all aspects of life, including commercial music. After nearly a decade worth of development, Columbia Records engineer Peter Carl Goldmark had successfully engineered a new format of playback: a multigrooved, foot-long ‘long-play’ (or LP) that would eventually phase out the more delicate, constrictive 10-inch format popularized before it. Clocking in at approximately 20 minutes per side, listeners could finally enjoy concert-length recordings of music in glorious high fidelity. Men, women, and their countless kids could happily sit by the fireplace of their newly bought homes in their safe, beautiful suburbs and enjoy nearly an hour’s worth of the dandiest music they could possibly dream of.

This was to be known as the supposed Golden Age of America. Life was good…or at least it was for some.

Beyond the picket fences of the White burbs was a country where there were few worst burdens than being Black. State-sponsored segregation was still a horrid reality in the Deep South and even north of the former Confederacy, racism and anti-Semitism were common attitudes that locked many hard-working people out of the luxuries enjoyed by the postwar Caucasian majority. This is a good moment to remark that twenty-four of the albums included on this list are from the 50s and of those releases, nearly four-fifths of them are fronted by African-American musicians. Though their faces were often excluded from even the front covers of their own records, these Black musicians would be belatedly recognized as the premier mavericks who would turn the album-format into a bone fide art form.

Beyond their consistent mastery of the medium, these particular artists also had another thing in common: all of them were jazz – or at least the ones on this list are. Not just any form of jazz though but specifically of the bebop (or ‘bop’) variation, which was a notably auteurist approach to jazz that was predominantly instrumental, frequently fast-moving, and curiously improvisatory. Indeed, if average music fans were pressed to name their favorite jazz artists, the few who could answer would likely mention bop-kings such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, or Thelonius Monk (all of whom have more than their fair share of work included on RYM’s list).

However, two names that may go overlooked are trumpet-player Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach. Though I had never heard of either Brown or Roach before beginning this list, their album Clifford Brown & Max Roach is the first album that I was to listen to while making this list (on account of it being the oldest). It was an unexpected start to my RYM challenge but hardly an inappropriate one because this record marks several important transitions. Firstly, having been initially released in 1954 as a 10” record, Clifford Brown & Max Roach was rereleased the following year on the 12” format with two full songs added – clearly cementing Goldmark’s invention as clear preference among Western musicians. Secondly, the album’s stylings are stuck somewhere between chiller sounds of early bop and the harsher, in-the-making sounds of so-called ‘hard bop’. Hard bop saw an incorporation of Afro-America reintroduced into the music, mainly from gospel and blues, and would remain the dominant subgenre of jazz until the turn of the decade.

Clifford Brown & Max Roach is an interesting beast for those reasons and many others. Its opening number, “Delilah”, is a truly unexpected diddy: a jazzy, horn-driven interpretation of the main orchestral theme from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 epic Samson and Delilah. For those who don’t know, biblical vehicles like Samson were lavish productions whose success was in part due to DeMille’s cunning whitewashing of Biblical tales, planting Anglo-Saxon stars in the place of Jewish, Arabic or Mediterranean characters so as to make such corny, lumbering shitshows more accessible to the racist sensibilities of movie goers. Therefore, it’s a wonderful novelty to hear such a formalist piece of music caustically reinterpreted by Black musicians. And they do so wonderfully, creating an atmospheric and seductive eight-minute mood-piece that demonstrates Brown’s remarkable control of his horn. As is customary on these early jazz albums, this opening track gives every member of the band at least one solo to perform, including Roach terrific drumming and the equally adequate contributions of saxophonist Harold Land, bassist George Morrow and pianist Richie Powell.

For me, however, it’s the second track “Parisian Thoroughfare” that stands out – if only due to its amazingly precocious sound. Roach imbues the intro of the song with an alarmingly fast pace before sending the listener on a trip of unpredictable breaks and tempo changes that would easily be associable with the experimental tendencies of subgenres-to-be like post-bop or avant-garde. Not to say that the track is inaccessible compared to the remainder of the album but its manic and idiosyncratic nature is extremely surprising for a sixty-three-year-old recording. Side A of the album is then happily close with “Blues Walk”, an exuberant trumpet-driven and danceable number that – while indeed being bluesy – showcases the swing- and big band-origins of the bop era, perfectly contrasting with the exoticness of the record’s two preceding bangers.

Then comes Side B of Clifford Brown & Max Roach which, comprised mostly of original compositions penned by Brown, blurs into a satisfying albeit indistinguishable whole. “Daahoud”, aside from its exotic name, is straight-laced bop fare that nonetheless packs some terrific drumming and a pleasingly playful chorus made memorable by Brown and Land’s impeccable synchronicity. The following track, “Joy Spring”, is somewhat of an allusion to the cool jazz scene that was occurring alongside hard bop so the mood of the song is pleasing and the playing more tempered, allowing Powell’s (otherwise poorly mixed) piano playing to shine through in all its greatness. The coolness continues with the catchy though unadventurous “Jordu”, which runs its brisk course before the album ends with the fast-paced “What Am I Here For” which – while being a peculiar choice for an ending track – makes sure that listeners end their experience on a happy note.

And there we have it: the first out of 1000 albums to be completed for this list. Clifford Brown & Max Roach is a strong record but one that is works best as a hint of things to come. Though Brown and Roach were two talents who certainly knew how to open an album, the rest hardly follows a coherent pattern. By comparison, Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool was released only two years later and while it was merely a compilation of early 10-inch records (and therefore disqualified from RYM’s list), Davis had a notably stronger sense of sequencing; he knew when to go fast or to go slow and knew how to close with a soft lullaby like “Darn That Dream” rather than a rollicking yet conspicuously anticlimactic number like “What Am I Here For”. Regardless of its imperfections, Clifford Brown & Max Roach remains one of the best revered artifacts of the hard bop age, much of that recognition due to the expert technical abilities of the quintet. For a modest jazz fan like myself, I’m left with appreciation of Brown and Roach’s legacy but also with a yearning for those who would arrive later into this Golden Age of America.

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