Roach and So What Brass 5 Take Jazz Back to the Basics


It doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of great jazz: a drummer and a brass quintet. No bass, no piano, no guitar.

But in the hands of Max Roach and his So What Brass 5 at the Jazz Bakery on Tuesday night, it was all that was needed--an ensemble that produced some of the purest, most essential jazz moments heard this season. In the opening performance of a six-night run, Roach and his players focused on the core of jazz, setting aside the trimmings in favor of uncluttered, unadulterated improvisation. (“Pure improvisation” is the way Roach described it at the close of the set, “that’s what it is.”)

Roach sat in the center of the stage behind his drum kit, with trumpeters Rod McGaha and Eddie Henderson, with tuba player Antonio Underwood on one side and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and French horn player Mark Taylor on the other. Looking like the benign guru that he really is, Roach calmly directed the proceedings with a multiplicity of subtle rhythmic commands, sometimes drumming his two sticks together to kick off a tune, at other times encouraging his players with smiling murmurs of support.


The result was a series of continuously compelling musical excursions, responded to knowingly and enthusiastically by a full-house audience. An opening Roach composition, “Ghost Dancers,” a rich-textured, rhythmic work that beautifully reflected its apparent inspiration in the tragic, Native American ghost dancers of the 19th century, was the most expansive work of the evening. It was followed by a series of large and small instrumental combinations, playing items from the familiar jazz repertoire in intimate, spontaneous fashion.

There was, for example, a lovely rendering of “God Bless the Child” via a duet between Underwood’s tuba and Henderson’s fluent trumpet. There were similarly engaging versions of “These Foolish Things” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” featuring Marsalis’ imaginative, articulate trombone playing. The effectiveness of these numbers was enormously heightened by the austerity of the instrumentation and the purely acoustic, unamplified sound.

With no harmonic instrument--piano or guitar--providing a cushion, the horn players were essentially on their own, obliged to spell out their melodies in a harmonic framework of their own making. And they did so splendidly--in the case of Henderson, magnificently.

The slower ballads were contrasted with surging versions of “Straight, No Chaser” and a high-speed “Donna Lee,” all held together by Roach’s superb drumming. At 74, he continues to be one of the principal standards for intelligent musical drumming, his playing informed with compositional structure and a constant awareness of the drum kit’s unique sonorities. In characteristically thoughtful fashion he is, with the So What Brass 5, providing a mesmerizing view of the inner essence of the jazz experience.


* Max Roach & the So What Brass 5 at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday. 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 271-9039. $20 cover tonight at 8:30 and 10, and Sunday at 6:30 and 8 p.m., $22 cover Friday and Saturday at 8:30 and 10 p.m.