MAX ROACH We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (Pure Pleasure)
The 1960 album is a justifiably angry work, given its themes of slavery, sit-ins, civil rights and African independence. Originally intended as a long-form piece to be performed in celebration of the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, parts had also been repurposed from material previously written as a ballet. It's one of those rare instances of jazz as journalism, with even the sleevenotes styled to represent a newspaper column, all the more remarkable from a genre devoted to escaping the mundane and the everyday, once characterised by saxophonist Johnny Griffin as "music made by and for people who have chosen to feel good in spite of conditions".
It's not an easy album to listen to, but if it were it might seem almost dishonest. It's given seething voice by Abbey Lincoln, who sounds like Nina Simone with the attitude of Siouxsie Sioux. Amidst the oppressive rhythms of "Driva' Man" she sings of slavery, rape and torture down on the plantation; on the scampering "Freedom Day" she seems jittery with nervous disbelief. "Triptych", with its self-explanatory movements "Prayer", "Protest" and "Peace", finds the record at its rawest, an exposed-nerve duet for Lincoln's voice and percussionist Max Roach that's structured like a free jazz antecedent of "The Great Gig In The Sky". Moving from reflective to lacerating and back, this is angry music that, for once, has something genuine to be angry about; there's no nihilistic punk posturing on display here. "All Africa" is a commentary on the roots and routes of rhythm, which evolves into the cross-pollination of beats that is "Tears For Johannesburg". The latter, and the album, end abruptly with a strange electronic pulsing that sounds like an archaic piece of telecom equipment has joined in the protest.
"We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite" is hard work, but not in the "Out To Lunch" sense. Its hard-edged political stridency is so outside jazz's traditional territory that the album requires some acclimatisation, but once on its wavelength it gets its points across forcefully. Pure Pleasure's reissue is a fine example of the contemporary vinyl art, 180 grams of what the cover sticker rightly hails as "The most beautiful music format in the world".