Defined by a series of dramatic, moody openers, or introductions - setting the scene, displacing the scene, making everything appear ambiguous and atmospheric - and very abrupt track endings, this record is something else. It carries an entire universe you don't find in any other place. If I were to be asked to 'take five' jazz records that are close to my heart, this album would be there.
Sometimes you can love a record by an artist and not be an obsessive fan of their other work, and while of course Max Roach is a major star in the firmament, it is his unexpected interaction with the little-known Philadelphia pianist, Hasaan Ibn Ali (this was his only recording, even though he was well-known at the time: Thelonious Monk cited him as his key inspiration) that makes this album so special.
Roach keeps his drumming loose, sloppy, open-wristed, almost deconstructed - falling apart as it keeps its shape - to offer a sharp emotional contrast with Ali's idiosyncratic piano playing style; at times, emphatic and assertive, other times whimsical and playful, or toying with some kind of just below the surface groove.
Track one: 'Three four vs Six-Eight Four-Four ways' opens with one of those beautifully excessive aforementioned intros, a deep, resounding heartbeat that plays with the child-like piano refrain; the drumming stops and starts, rolling in its wonderful abundance, to stop completely at four minutes to start up again with the piano-line, as an ironic after-thought.
My favourite though, this kills me, it seems so modern: track three 'Hope so Elmo' ... Opening so moody and monumental, sounding like bullets breaking up and then the drums disappear to allow the sonorous bass, provided by Art Davis to become the central element. And then Roach comes back, about four minutes in, and the piano part speeds up, becoming very determined, insistent almost, as the drums cut in and out like tiny explosions.
Now I'd never put myself forward as an expert (it isn't false modesty, but more my awareness that like a character in a short story by Borges that finds himself, in awe when faced by a library without limits, I know that there will always be a piece of music, or maybe some person holding tight to an encyclopedia to 'prove me wrong') but this track strikes me something very different, something unique within the jazz genre.
(Talking about being wrong, hope there's no issue with the title above, the YT vid doesn't have a track-listing, the wik reference is not the same etcetera; write me a note if it's off; talking about YT originally I posted the entire record, but it has since disappeared; major shame).
The music on this album strikes me as an exploration of space - in an emotional sense, in a kind of atmosphere - rather than time, where the different elements are expanded to fit and to distort what we expect; we see it in the way the musicians hold the space open, pausing and exploring, rather than moving to some kind of resolution.
Here's a nice comment on the record by another fan, Timy Keller that I found on the very short AllMusic review:
And I came across a thread where there were various interesting replies to the question below:
'Groove Merchant' replied: 'If I remember correctly Hasaan Ibn Ali , born William Henry Langford , died in 1981 at age 50. I don't play his lp much ; guess I'd rather listen to Monk , Nichols or Hope . Tom Dowd's engineering didn't do anyone any favors either . I recall though that Max's playing is top notch , so that's as good a reason as any to dig this one out and revisit it.'
And another reply: 'I attended a Jimmy Heath interview/master class on Saturday afternoon, followed by a Jimmy Heath concert in the evening. During the Q&A with the audience, I asked Heath about Hasaan. His face kind of lit up as he asked, "Hasaan? The piano player?!?" He spoke for a couple of minutes about Hasaan, mainly focusing on his eccentricities. Here are a few random bits:
1) To Hasaan's annoyance, Philly Joe called him Hot Sam. Others called him Count Langford.
2) Hasaan complained about another musician, saying "He stole my 13ths, but I got 29ths!"
3) Hasaan had the habit of buying new ties and cutting them in half, a practice that still seemed to baffle Heath.
4) Heath referred to Hasaan being avant garde before Cecil Taylor, and said that Hasaan didn't get as many gigs as other pianists, which the following story might explain. Hasaan was playing a gig with the singer Bull Moose Jackson, who was an ugly man (hence the nickname) who could sing pretty. The band was going to play 'Flying Home'(Heath sang the melody so people would know how it went). Bull Moose said to Hasaan, "Give me that intro." Hasaan proceeded to play the intro as you'd expect Hasaan to play it. Bull Moose then said, "Give me that intro again!" He couldn't find where to come in.
The audience enjoyed Heath's Hasaan anecdotes, even if most of them had never heard of him before. Heath remembered that Hasaan only appeared on one album, so maybe some of them will seek it out. In my question, I also asked about John Dennis, another obscure Philly pianist. Although Heath didn't address the Dennis part, I was happy to at least learn more about Hasaan. I get really nervous when speaking in public, but Heath's stories made the rise in blood pressure worth it.'
Re Veteran Groover's posting of 15 May 2012: "Hasaan had the habit of buying new ties and cutting them in half, a practice that still seemed to baffle Heath."
Hasaan did not cut his ties in half. What gave people that impression was this: Hasaan would position his tie with the narrow, back part in the front, adjust the length so that the narrow part hung only to mid-chest, and wind the remainder of the tie around his trunk so that it would be hidden under his shirt. I know this to be true because I once saw him do it.
Hasaan did not cut his ties in half.
I like that this is the only post from "HomageToDonByas."
Listened to the Atlantic recording today. Tom Dowd panned Hasaan's piano far left — right on top of Art Davis's bass. Max gets (pretty much) the whole right channel to himself. The record (not the recording) itself is killer. Though Hasaan was mentored by Elmo Hope, I hear quite a bit of Herbie Nichols in his playing. Almost a missing link between Monk and Nichols. Anyone else hear this?
I'm back by request from Spontooneous but not sure that I have any more of interest to contribute. Any specific questions?
Welcome back! Would you please tell more about his behavior, on or off the stand? Was he easy to get along with? Solitary? Prickly? Angry? Spacey? (Not too specific there, I know! Just trying to get a better picture of him.)
He was extremely eccentric. He was not prickly, not angry. He was an only child and was doted on by his parents, with whom he continue to live as an adult.
He titled his letters. I remember one title: Retrospect in Retirement of Delay.
Drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey, in a 2008 interview with writer Don Alberts, said, "And who was [Thelonious] Monk's idol? Hasaan Ibn Ali. Nobody knows that!"
Ref: Alberts, Don (2011) A Diary of the Underdogs: Jazz in the 1960's in San Francisco. p. 120. Chill House Publishers.