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The Front Row
Roy Brooks’s “Understanding,” a Crucial Jazz Rediscovery in Sound and Sense
The first release of the drummer’s 1970 quintet recording displays the era’s key musical and political influences.
By Richard Brody
July 26, 2021
What makes the Roy Brooks recording and its highlights a manifesto is a matter of cultural substance as much as musical form.Photograph by Leni Sinclair / Getty
From the nineteen-fifties through the seventies, the jazz drummer Roy Brooks performed with some of the major musicians of the time, such as Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, and led some talented groups of his own. But as he was making a name for himself as a leader, in the seventies, his career was interrupted by mental illness; he died in 2005, at the age of sixty-seven. Today, he’s among the great jazz musicians whose enormous artistry stands in unfortunate contrast to their relative obscurity. The release, last week, of “Understanding”—a two-CD set of a live recording, from 1970, of a quintet led by Brooks, which is also available on vinyl and digital stream—should suffice to establish him as one of the most original jazz performers of the era.
The instrumentation of Brooks’s quintet is classical—trumpet, tenor sax, piano, bass, drums—but its mix of musical personalities is volatile, ranging from post-bop to avant-garde. The venue where the band recorded, the Left Bank Jazz Society, in Baltimore, was known for its engaged and enthusiastic audiences, and the rediscovered tapes of “Understanding” reflect the sympathetic vibe between the crowd and the musicians, who pour themselves into the music with an uninhibited energy. They break the boundaries of the familiar post-bop format with the heroic length and fervor of their solos—all energized by the inspirations of Brooks’s drumming. The album includes five main pieces, each more than twenty minutes long and one running past a half hour, and the solos have a dramatic and athletic span to match; the tempos range from brisk to rocking and jet-propelled. The music’s tone, too, has a ferocious expressivity that’s on display from the very start of the concert.
The first track, “Prelude to Understanding,” begins with Brooks setting not a tempo but a turbulent tone, before the trumpeter, Woody Shaw, comes in and launches a majestic, furious eleven-minute solo that’s something of a manifesto of the moment. The piece, by Brooks, begins themelessly, with merely Brooks’s drum thunder, and Shaw leaps in to mesh with Brooks in a rhythm that shifts between—and even daringly intertwines—an extremely fast double time and a hefty, straight-ahead jaunt. Here, as throughout the concert, Brooks channels the mountainous energy of Elvin Jones, the drummer in John Coltrane’s classic quartet, with rhythmic solidity and weighty swing balanced by a free rumbling that rises to near-catastrophic tumult, all while keeping, with a daring tenuousness, the thread of the beat.
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The band features the Panamanian tenor saxophonist Carlos Garnett, who has a harmonic sensibility and a precise rapidity reminiscent of Coltrane, and also a piquant buzz in his tone, a steadiness of rhythm (even in passionately strident high notes), and a keen sense of musical drama; the pianist Harold Mabern, a fervent veteran of the fiery hard-bop scene; and the bassist Cecil McBee, who had a foot in the same scene and another in free jazz. Shaw, who was just twenty-five—but who started his recording career seven years earlier, with the modernist Eric Dolphy, and who continued to push classic styles toward the avant-garde—is the one who, with Brooks, presses the music to its outer limits. On his own composition “Zoltan,” Shaw plays exuberantly with the song’s harmonic complexities. Aided by Mabern’s adventuresome, ringingly percussive, and rhythmically shifting chords, his trumpet sounds like it’s streaming with hot sunbeams. Garnett, the first soloist on his composition “Taurus Woman,” builds to a high-pitched, high-intensity declamation as Brooks raises a mighty and propulsive racket with a blend of uninhibited spontaneity and tensely controlled precision. Here, as throughout, Brooks unleashes a tumultuous foundation of polyrhythms so thick that it sounds as if it were made with six limbs, rather than four.
The fervor and energy of Brooks, the band, and the soloists reflect Coltrane’s influence, but the dominant spirit of the performance comes from someone else: Miles Davis, whose turn to electric instruments and rock rhythms was wrongly (even in 1974, when I heard him at Carnegie Hall) considered by many to be a cynical adoption of pop styles and a regression in complexity. It was, rather, a new approach to musical space and musical density—the small group’s electric instruments provided such a thick and intricate underpinning (along with sheer volume) that it allowed Davis to fragment his improvisations and meld his own silences with his band’s forward-surging furies. Though Brooks’s quintet is strictly acoustic, the turbulent rhythms that Brooks lays down, joined by McBee’s sharply etched pulsations and Mabern’s harmonically rich interjections, burst to the fore. They give Garnett and, especially, Shaw the multilayered improvised orchestration to sustain a new kind of solo—of barrier-breaking blasts and fiery flourishes—that borrows both from Davis’s new style of soloing and his new group concept.
Yet what makes the Brooks recording and its highlights a manifesto is a matter of cultural substance as well as musical form. The band’s expansion of post-bop styles through the influence of Coltrane and Davis—of two different kinds of avant-garde, one overt and openly discussed in terms of bold progress, the other wildly misunderstood as a form of marketing—isn’t just a matter of style but an intellectual insight that virtually speaks ideas in its musical language. Talking with Madeleine Brand on KCRW a few weeks ago, about the new release of Charles Mingus’s 1974 Carnegie Hall concert, I mentioned the “politics of sound” embodied in the recording, the representation of the civil-rights movement in the musicians’ free assertiveness. In the booklet for “Understanding,” the critic and historian Mark Stryker quotes McBee, the group’s bassist, who makes this connection explicit: “During that period, we were intent on such intense expression because of the social movements—civil rights, opposition to the war. The music was trying to express the excitement of arriving at social justice.” In his group’s combination of modern tradition and the urgent social demands of the time, and in his own torrential approach to his instrument and its historic implications, Brooks makes music that, at fifty years’ remove, sounds utterly contemporary today.
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Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog, The Front Row. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”
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