By Devon Wendell
Although I despise the whole concept of “desert island discs,” top ten, twenty, or 100 “Greatest” lists and that kind of lazy and pedantic journalism, I do accept the fact that there are certain recordings that I simply cannot live without.
The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet is the perfect band of the post bebop revolution. They are to me what The Beatles or The Rolling Stones are to the obsessively nostalgic boomer rock lovers. And At Basin Street is essential to my existence.
Clifford Brown was a virtuoso trumpeter who believed in clean living. He put his craft ahead of everything and wouldn’t allow any vices to hinder his budding brilliance. He never drank, smoked, or took drugs. He had a sweet, fat tone and a range on the trumpet that seemed endless. There would be no Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard without Brown’s influence. Brown was deeply inspired by the great Fats Navarro. Early in his career he made records with J.J. Johnson, Art Blakey, Tadd Dameron, Lou Donaldson, Gigi Gryce, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan.
And then you have Max Roach, my favorite drummer of all time. Max could play the most hard-hitting, bombastic drum solos and then turn around and serve up the cleanest fills you’ve ever heard in your life. He was one of the pioneers of bebop drumming. Max was an essential part of many of the most important records in jazz history – by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Stan Getz, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Dorham, and Eric Dolphy to name only a very few.
The original Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet featured Brown on trumpet, Harold Land, tenor saxophone, George Morrow, bass, Richie Powell, piano, and of course Max Roach on drums.
In late 1955, Land left the group and Sonny Rollins stepped in to take his place on tenor sax. On January 4th and February 4th, 5th, and 8th of 1956; Clifford Brown, Max Roach and the band went into the studio to make what would become their second to last album titled At Basin Street. This album is an American masterpiece. It swings joyfully, it’s elegantly funky, and no one sounded like the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet. Their sound is instantly identifiable. The collective genius of the group is astounding. Unfortunately, Brown’s and Richie Powell’s lives were cut short as a result of a tragic car accident on June 26th, 1956 in Bedford, Pennsylvania. The jazz world would never be the same after Brown’s untimely death.
At Basin Street is bop at its strongest. This is also one of the most thematic bands of that time period. Each member had a designated role within a given composition and they stuck to it with both precision and dedication. On standards like “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “I’ll Remember April,” Brown and Rollins swing with the most incredible rhythm. Rollins’s playing on this record is hipper than what anyone else was doing on the tenor sax at the time.
Brown and Rollins compliment each other’s lines with humor, dexterity, and imagination.
“Love Is A Many Splendored Thing” is an odd choice of material but the stated melody line is secondary to the mesmerizing solos by Brown, Rollins, Powell, and Roach. Brown could play over any chord progression no matter how frenetic but was also capable of the most beautiful and lyrical ballads imaginable.
The rendition of Benny Golson’s “Step Lightly (Junior’s Arrival)” has a slick, mellow, and relentlessly funky groove that fits the band’s overall sound perfectly. “Powell’s Prance” and “Gertrude’s Bounce” (both written by Richie Powell) are up-tempo barn-burning bop supernovas. Brown’s trumpet lines dance up and down, from the altissimo register to the lower with the confidence and ease of a true master who has been playing for many decades. The maturity Brown possessed at 25 is unparalleled and awe-inspiring.
Rollins often plays a sudden burst or smear of notes or chooses some slow, long tones that cook harder and harder with each solo or response to Brown’s phrasing as the two trade fours and eights.
Richie Powell’s ballad “Time” is delicate and haunting. There are absolutely no solos in this piece. It sounds simple but it’s harmonically a very complex composition and the album wouldn’t be the same without it.
The two Tadd Dameron numbers: “The Scene Is Clean” and “Flossie Lou,” are perfect examples of how Brown, Roach, and the band could fuse straight ahead bebop with the new hard-bop sound which featured heavier gospel and blues influences. This was long before hard-bop had fallen too far into the finger snapping soul jazz bag. It’s that perfect transitional period in which all of the skill and virtuosity of the bebop era were still present and burning strong.
The rest of the album features stellar outtakes of “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” “I’ll Remember April” and “Flossie Lou.” Each is completely different than the original chosen takes. Powell’s usually gentle approach to piano soloing and comping is more percussive and aggressive on these alternate versions. Brown’s and Rollins’s solos on these outtakes make them an essential part of the album. You get to witness how quickly these geniuses thought and moved on their feet.
Clifford Brown and Max Roach At Basin Street is up there with the greatest recordings by Bird, Monk, Dizzy, and Bud. Once you allow yourself to experience this music fully, it’ll be a most rewarding and important part of your life forever as it is to mine.