Jazz drummers, like dancers, seem to retain their light-footedness well into their mature years. Drummer Max Roach--a precise and swinging Fred Astaire to, say, Elvin Jones' athletic Gene Kelly--is a classic example.
Making one of his rare Los Angeles appearances Sunday night at the Palace, the 62-year-old jazz veteran looked as lean and dapper, and sounded even more musical than he did during his salad years in the '40s and '50s with Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown.
Starting his set with a three-part solo that explored everything from back-beat funk to African talking drums, Roach wasted no time in reminding his audience that the best jazz drumming is as concerned with pitch and timbrel variation as it is with time-keeping and swing.
Once Roach was joined by his group, however, both the thrust and the quality of the music dissipated somewhat. "Scot Free"--a long, rambling, sequence of solo and duet improvisations sounded like '60s avant-garde revisited, with bassist Tyrone Brown the only group member who managed to speak in a contemporary voice.
Tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, exorcising every honk, harmonic, squeal, screech, flurry and flutter he could squeeze out of his instrument, produced a Coltrane dialect, without the Coltrane poetry. Fortunately, he was less frenzied, and far more appealing on an unaccompanied, beautifully phrased version of Benny Golson's classic "I Remember Clifford."
Trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater's brisk staccato passages were reminiscent of, but not quite in a class with, Clark Terry's classic phrasing.
Appropriately, the final number brought Roach on stage alone to perform his now-familiar homage to drummer Jo Jones--a tour de force executed with only a pair of sticks and a high hat cymbal. Like Fred Astaire dancing with a coat rack, Roach and his high hat demonstrated that true artistry can transcend both medium and message.