I love discovering new music. Well, music I’ve never heard before, that is. Take this recording by Max Roach, for example: a passionate, poignant and still amazingly fresh piece that surprises and inspires.
I have never, ever, ever before seen in all my years of shopping a copy of We Insist!, the 1960 Candid Records release by the legendary jazz drummer Max Roach. Granted, I recognize that one has to be pretty into jazz to go looking for the groups led by famous drummers. And sure, some drummers have led some very influential groups over the years (Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Thad Jones, etc.). But still, at some point you’d think I would have come across this recording (especially since I am a fan of tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins).
We Insist! is a bold civil rights song cycle — subtitled the Freedom Now Suite — which was being prepared to be performed in 1963 on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. The record was (according to the liner notes) also a reaction to sit-in protests happening in the South at that time and the work of Martin Luther King. Just one look at the cover — designed to look like a newspaper, a full 12 years before John and Yoko did their Sometime In New York City protest record — and you know you are in for a listening experience of some magnitude.
Consider some of the players on this album : Abbey Lincoln on vocals, Colman Hawkins on tenor sax, Michael Olatunji on congas (I guess before he was widely known as Babatunde Olatunji). The album was written with Oscar Brown Jr, a writer and singer from Chicago.
From the first Mingus-esque whip-like slaps on album opener “Driva’ Man,” I was drawn into the music. With painfully cinematic lyrics like “When his cat-o-nine-tail fly, you’d be happy just to die,” it paints an appropriately hellish portrait of the life of female slaves — who were frequently forced into sexual relations with their overseer bosses — and the brutal whippings of all who were caught by patrollers while trying to run away.
Toward the end of Side One, the music takes a turn that absolutely stopped me in my tracks; “Tryptych” (with its Prayer/Protest/Peace sections) with just Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach on vocal and drums, is stunning. The vocals definitely aren’t sweet scat jazz singing. No, this is Abbey Lincoln singing as I have never heard singer from the period sing before. Actually, she is not really singing. She is shrieking, screaming, bellowing to the point where you can’t help but feel the pain of oppression coming through your speakers. This is a howl that Yoko Ono might aspire to (and I like Yoko’s work, so this is not a slam on her).
On Side Two, we hear the work of Olatunji and, again, this album suddenly feels completely timeless. So, nine years before Santana recorded one of his songs (“Jingo,” from the first album) and more than 25 years before Paul Simon’s Graceland, we’re hearing Nigerian musicians jamming with Americans. The interaction of Roach’s playing against Olatunji’s rhythms is spellbinding. Genuine world music.
Wow, wow, wow. Why isn’ t this album better known? Well, at least I didn’t know about it. It sounds pretty amazing. Check out these details from liner notes (I love old jazz albums for this kinda stuff):
“This album was recorded monophonically and stereophonically directly to two track and full track master tapes on Ampex 300s using the following microphones: Neumann U-47, EV 667, RCA 44BX; Western Electric 639. The master lacquers were cut directly from the original master tapes on a Neumann lathe using a Westrex 2B cutter for mono and a Westrex 3C cutter for stereo. The frequency response of both systems is flat plus or minus 1/2 dB from 30 cycles to 15,000 cycles.”
Its no wonder that so many of us old record fans became audiophiles, given these sorts of details.
And now you know about We Insist!
Whatever your preferred format, this is essential listening.
Here is some amazing video from four years after the recording of We Insist!, of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach performing parts of this work live for Belgian television.