Graded on a Curve:
Max Roach,
Members, Don’t Git Weary.

For his third in a four album run for Atlantic Records, the great Modern Jazz drummer and bandleader Max Roach brought a quintet of largely younger names to RCA’s Studio B to lay down a concise but effective set of modal post-bop. Members, Don’t Git Weary is that record, initially released in 1968 and scheduled for reissue on vinyl by Real Gone Music on June 3. Loaded with original compositions by the participants, and with guest vocals on one track by Andy Bey, it’s a worthy choice for a repress.

Max Roach’s combination of sheer longevity and steadily evolving creative spark puts him in the upper echelon of the jazz drummers who emerged from the bebop and post-bop eras, placing him alongside such stalwart names as Kenny “Klook” Clarke, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, and Billy Higgins. Extending to a younger generation adds Paul Motian, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJohnette to the list (a grouping that’s not intended to be definitive).

What many of those names share is the ability to adapt to a wide range of stylistic situations, a unique quality of drummers, with none more versatile than Roach, who was part of the original bebop explosion, recording with Bird and Diz and Miles and Monk, and who much later, released albums with the vital avant-garde figures Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton.

Starting in the early 1950s, Roach began leading (or co-leading) his own sessions, cutting numerous masterpieces across half a century. And while prolific during that span, Roach never gave the impression that he was just churning out records. To the contrary, his stint for Atlantic, which began in 1964 with the sweet The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan, only produced four albums; the last, Lift Every Voice and Sing (recorded with the JC White Singers) arrived in 1971.

Falling in between was Drums Unlimited, an album interweaving solo drum tracks with quintet recordings released in 1966, and the LP under review here, issued two years later. Besides Roach (natch), the only musician who plays on both records is bassist Jymie Merritt, the instrumentalist who’d recorded most extensively prior to Members, Don’t Get Weary, having worked steadily as a Jazz Messenger from 1958-’63.

Two years after Merritt left Blakey’s group, Gary Bartz, the alto saxophonist on Members, Don’t Git Weary, made his recording debut on the Messengers album Soul Finger. A couple years later, Bartz cut his first record as leader, Libra for the Milestone label, with the saxophonist bringing the title composition to the sessions for Roach’s album. “Libra” alternates jaunty passages with high-flying excursions. Unsurprisingly, Bartz is in the spotlight.

Pianist Stanley Cowell lands three compositions on the album, the opening groover “Abstrutions,” which connects like an excerpt from a late ’60s Blue Note LP (I’m thinking specifically of Andrew Hill’s neglected classic Grass Roots), the more spacious glider “Effi,” and the warmly contemplative “Equipoise.” Cowell makes his presence known in all three, as does trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who later teamed with the pianist in the group Music Inc. (the two also co-founded the Strata-East label), and who’s in sharp form throughout this set.

That leaves one track composed by Roach, the title cut, which takes on a gospel fervor courtesy of Bey’s contribution, and one by Merritt, the snaky closer “Absolutions,” where Cowell switches to electric piano. Notably, Merritt plays electric bass across the entire set, though to call this a proto-fusion effort isn’t really accurate. It’s more a case of individuals trying and applying new things, and with solid results.

With nary a hint of showboating, Roach sounds terrific across the whole of Members, Don’t Git Weary, hitting the cans like a champ right off the bat in “Abstrutions.” If the album falls a little below top tier, it’s mainly down to the relative small number of galvanizing moments, as individually short tracks make up a succinct LP. This is not one for jazz fans to skip however, as the whole ultimately satisfies.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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