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Max Roach at 100: Five stellar tracks that attest to his genius

Max Roach performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 23,1994.
Clayton Call
Max Roach performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 23, 1994. (Photo by Clayton Call/Redferns)

Max Roach, the musical innovator and liberator, was born on January 10, in 1924. His centennial anniversary provides the perfect opportunity to celebrate the matchless creativity, agility, and intensity that Roach deployed to extend the language of the drumset.

Even a cursory listen to his driving cymbal patterns, and his melodicism on the instrument, reveals an identifiable sound. He catalyzed the performances of peers such as Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker — and amazingly, Roach's signature beats were as definitive as the melodies he supported.

Roach was not only a chief architect of the modern music we continue to enjoy; he was also outspoken as an activist. He saw the necessity of using his music to advocate for social change with albums like We Insist! and It’s Time. Speaking out on record and in the public sometimes put Roach at odds with the status quo, but it would endear him as a mentor and model to like-minded artists and listeners.

Listen to tonight’s Evening Jazz to hear some of Roach’s timeless music. I’ve also selected five songs here that demonstrate his indomitable sound and spirit. And stay tuned, because Max Roach guides our next episode of The Late Set podcast, which will feature an incredible conversation with one of his heirs, drummer Nasheet Waits.

Bud Powell, “Un Poco Loco”

The groove that Roach crafts here is just as essential as the melody. As inspired as Powell's playing is, a focused listen to Roach’s drum part will leave you just as satisfied.

Sonny Rollins, “St. Thomas”

Perhaps Sonny Rollins' premier partner in rhythm, Roach brings a bounce and flair that propels the music distinctively. It isn’t exactly a calypso or Latin feel that we’re hearing from the drums, but it’s all Max Roach.

Max Roach, “Triptych: Prayer / Protest/ Peace”

Roach and his partner at the time, Abbey Lincoln, escape the confines of genre to deliver an urgent message of freedom and liberation.

Max Roach, “For Big Sid”

Always the compelling soloist, Roach captures ears immediately with a tight display of his rhythmic language that has become the standard for modern percussionists.

Max Roach, “It’s Time”

Playing louder volumes can restrict the facility of top-tier instrumentalists. But Roach is able to project above a powerful ensemble of instruments and vocalists in an arresting display of chops and propulsion.

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music as a broadcaster, writer, host and musician. As a young child, he began absorbing the artistry of Miles Davis, Les McCann, Jimmy Smith, James Brown, Ornette Coleman, Weather Report, and Jimi Hendrix via his parent's record collection. He was so moved by what he was experiencing that he took pride in relaying all of his discoveries with anyone who would listen.