Max Roach: Percussion Bitter Sweet (1961) Impulse


Selection 1: Man from South Africa


Booker Little (trumpet) Julian Priester (trombone) Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone, flute, bass clarinet) Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone) Mal Waldron (piano) Art Davis (bass) Max Roach (drums) Carlos “Patato” Valdes (congas) Carlos ‘Totico’ Eugenio (cowbell) Abbey Lincoln (vocals) Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, August 9, 1961

Selection 2: Praise to the Martyr

Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, August 8, 1961



This very early Impulse title (A-8) offers music of great intensity and seriousness of purpose, against the landscape of the early ’60s civil rights movement. Weaving together references to South Africa and the Afro-American struggle, the four brass instrument front line, including the briefly flowering Booker Little and Eric Dolphy, makes a potent harmonic mix which underlines its overtly political themes. This is music impossible to ignore.

Despite its title “percussion suite”, it is not Art Blakey Orgy in Rhythm, Volume 3. Roach is ringmaster to a group of powerful soloists, and he elevates the role of timekeeper to that almost of the piano, advancing complex meters and polyrhythms, supplemented by Afro-Cuban percussion. A steadfast Mal Waldron provides a canvas for all this rich dynamic musical narrative, and the soloists blaze away. And blaze they do.

Amazon reviewer Chip Stern goes into hyperbolic overdrive:

 Little’s darting filigree on the hard-swinging “Mama” is indicative of his breakthroughs in harmony and phrasing, while Dolphy’s glorious, airborne flute, fulminating bass clarinet, and torchy, enraged alto enliven the waltzing “Tender Warriors” and the sardonic “Mendacity.”

Yeah, Dolphy!: “airborne flute, fulminating bass clarinet, enraged alto” sums it quite perfectly.

Clifford Jordan, who am not always a fan of, aquits himself honourably here while Priester enriches the brass with the pungent tones of the trombone. Abbey Lincoln’s theatrical readings leaves the listener in no doubt  of the intended political messages . The ever-insightful John Fordham notes in his 2010  tribute to  Abbey Lincoln her status partly rests on securing a place for social-issue songs more usually associated with folk music than jazz“. This is no ordinary musical album, it is embedded with a social message, but it also exists at a musical level.



Liner notes at “reading-quality”:


Vinyl: Impulse A-8 Mono

Orange/ black label: Am Par – 1st pressing – recorded at Englewood Cliffs but apparently not van Gelder mastered (no RVG), Bell Sound , no visible LW (Longwear Plating Company) which is usually present on original Impulse. A few loose ends… 


Usual informative Impulse back cover, shown for completeness.


Collectors Corner: LJC soapbox

Professor Jazz

Professor Jazz

I may be out on a limb here, but I’ll keep sawing.

I am not keen on vocals but the presence of so many great musicians on A-8 overcame my initial misgivings. Musical instruments speak with greater articulation; emotion is translated through body or breath into sound. It’s called  “music”, at its best, a spontaneous collaborative effort of great power and beauty.

Nevertheless I enjoy Archie Shepp’s occasional excursion into oration.  “Dear God…Malcolm! has a power that in a few words resonates with direct emotion. However Miss Abbey Lincoln, who became Mrs Max Roach the following year,  is in the “jazz singer” mould that remains obstinately beyond me. To be fair, the lyrics here reach for a higher level of meaning than the trite in and out of lurve school of song writing. However I confess I love this album in spite of rather than because of the singing.

Taken with its  companion album “We Insist, Freedom Now Suite”, “Percussion Bitter Sweet” has important things to say about the need for change at that point in America’s history. That is understood, not to diminish it, consider it a bonus, but  Percussion Bitter Sweet  is great music, just as passionate as the fury of Charles Mingus berating governor Orville Faubus. It achieves that in its own right, by dint of the quality and performance of its artists and their passionate contributions, as it does in all good music, everywhere. The politics people can go argue about, the music I believe speaks for itself. It speaks well of those who made it.


19 thoughts on “Max Roach: Percussion Bitter Sweet (1961) Impulse

  1. On a more constructive note, I wonder whether Jackie McLean had that loping groove on Man from South Africa in mind in 1967 when he recorded HIPNOSIS…on the LP Hipnosis, which we have covered elsewhere here, I think. Anyway, there are extraordinary similarities…

  2. I wondered how or why I had never investigated this record… And then I read on and LJC ‘fessed up to it having a singer on it. Phew — I can therefore safely ignore it. (Some would call this ignorant prejudice but I prefer to think of it as a ‘filtering system’….)

    • old story, NO singers, this would be explored some time.
      as stated before, I prefer instrumentals and I’m not a singers’ expert but, I do like Jazz singing here and there.
      aside Lady Day, who is above discussion for me, there are some intriguing voices in records of great importance.
      cited before, Freedom Now Suite, Roach on Candid, features the shouting voice of Mrs. Lincoln, absolutely appropriate. in this record Ella or Sarah would not be at home.
      I like Helen Merrill too: check EmArCy with Clifford for example.
      so, ok Jazz singing but in small doses.

      • Abbey Lincoln has never been my cup of tea. I wouldn’t even associate the term “shouting” with her style. Nothing wrong with shouting though – as long as it’s people who come from a genuine blues tradition.

        • neither mine, I repeat: singing in small doses for me.
          in this particular record, according to the heavy protest matter, Miss Lincoln’s voice is in the right place. Few other singers should have substituted her.

          • Freedom Now is an impressive record, no doubt. Among the things I like about it are the contributions made by Coleman Hawkins.

        • oh, and Basie reminds me of the critics Ellington received for NEVER having a great singer in his many vocals tracks.
          great music, great arrangements, great soloists, weak singers.
          but good ones were at hand…

          • Very true, Dottore. Nevertheless, neither Basie nor Ellington would have really needed a singer to acquire world fame, would they?

            • totally agreed, two voices, one for each band, are in my personal Hall of Fame: Pres for Basie and Rabbit for Duke. Both orchestras , and Jazz as a whole, would have been much poorer without those two cats.
              I would add: their best work wasn’t in 50’s or 60’s, the decades we all love best…

              • Early Billie Holiday Columbia recordings had the best Basie and Ellington men playing together and that is just one of the greatest thing in jazz.

                I also like early 40’s Ellington songs like “Me and You”, Jump for Joy” including singers Ivie Anderson and Herb Jeffries. Yes I do!

                How about Ella’s Ellington Songbook with Duke’s band. Especially the small band sessions are superb.

                • No objection, Jay. I also like Duke’s “Liberian Suite” with Al Hibbler’s vocal on “I Like The Sunrise”. Ella’s “Ellington Song Book” is great, but still it’s the four tracks that are strictly instrumental (“Portrait Of Ella Fitzgerald”) that I like best. I never cared for the singers Duke Ellington hired for his concert tours abroad (Tony Watkins, Anita Moore). Whenever I listen to Duke’s music, I try to avoid the vocal stuff.

      • Oh no – I have heard the yodelling, believe me, and more surely than jazz ain’t singing, it most certainly isn’t yodelling!

  3. Chip Stern! Haven’t heard from him in years! (staff writer/reviewer for ’70’s masthead ‘Musician: Player & Listener’)

  4. damn, LJC. i would love to get my hands on a copy of this. tough to find at a reasonable price, you know. perhaps i will mosey on down to the local store where i had my last big LJC-related score. and no LW? very interesting. I have roughly 1/3 of the original impulses from the orange-spine era and a good chunk from beyond, and EVERY ONE has the LW. fascinating to know that some do not. but the Am-par label can tell no lies.

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