SKF NOTE: Max Roach was, for me, an early and lifelong musical influence. Not long after I tried emulating Max’s drumming style, I discovered a new challenge. If I was going to play like Max at all, I had to know songs, song structure, melodies.
I bought every album I found with Max Roach on drums. It didn’t matter if Max was the album leader or sideman. The music of Max with Clifford Brown will always be special. The Brown/Roach Quintet introduced me to Max.
Max Roach’s Drums Unlimited album is another strong influence. From photographer Chuck Stewart‘s album cover photo of Max’s Gretsch drum set, worn drum heads, different size hi-hat cymbals, and a good look at how Max holds his drumsticks, to the Max’s classic drum solos, For Big Sid and The Drum Also Waltzes. Incredible.
So it was an honor meeting Max in 1982 at his home and being able to ask him directly about his pioneering drum solo pieces.
Scott K Fish: I wanted to ask you about the development of your solo pieces like Conversation and For Big Sid.
Max Roach: It was just compositional form. After you get past, say, the techniques of an art form — and we’re dealing with [the art form of] music — even though you play a melodic or an instrument of indeterminate pitch, no matter what you do on that instrument — if you are running up-and-down that instrument with all kinds of pyrotechnical things, it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense. It doesn’t mean anything. Even though you’re playing the right changes and all the right notes coinciding with the chordal progression.
What makes a piece an art piece is design. Design.
If you play any instrument, if you don’t create design…. If the artist doesn’t know how to utilize space and sound, and the dynamics of soft and loud — all the little things — and repitition and sequential dealing with all the rules that make up what we know as an art piece — and then some more –then it’s not [an art] piece anyway. Whether you’re playing an instrument of determinate or indeterminate pitch.
I hear some people who run up-and-down the piano and it’s not musical. All I can say is, “Well, he’s got good technique.” But I never say he’s playing music, or [that] he’s creating some design.
So when I build a solo it’s design within the structure of something, sometime. Basically it’s design. Like creating a poem, a painting, or anything else. It’s how you use [design] to set up certain things.
Space is important and dynamics are important. And things like sequences or sequential things are important. And how you relate to certain timbres on the [drum]set itself is important.
And that’s how you build a solo.
SKF: The initial idea for [your drum solo] pieces. Where do they come from?
MR: Well, they come from maybe a phrase that [I] improvise with. They can come from a time signature. All the possibilities. Because you…. After you master the techniques and you’ve got good hands, good feet, good coordination; your separation’s together and you know how to use all four limbs equally but still [separately] — now the next step is ideas.
You have to create and invent new ideas that do things. And each idea has to be different. It has to be a different challenge. If this idea is dense then maybe the next idea you’re playing can be very open. Or there are gradations between dense and open and dense.
You use also all the techniques…involved in creating a musical composition or creating a poem: periods, question marks, call-and-response. All these kind of things.
It can be done within the context of a [musical] piece that’s being played [or] if you’re playing within a solo context.
Every piece has its own personality. And when you write a piece, you write the personality of the piece, eventually. You may start a piece and you may have an idea of what the piece is going to be like. It may be quiet. It may be busy. It may be relaxed. It may be peaceful [or] it may not be. Whatever! That is the basic nature of the piece you’re going to deal with.
Now, when someone improvises within that piece they have to understand the piece was written for a certain mood or a certain feeling. When you improvise, you have to improvise within that [certain mood or feeling]. You can’t say, “This is a very simple modal piece” and then come in like you’re playing Giant Steps or Not So Quiet, Please.
It has a different feeling to the piece.
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