BEN VON KAUFMANN revisits Max Roach’s landmark jazz album from 1960, We Insist!

From the outset, Max Roach’s We Insist! is a bracing experience. ‘Driva’ Man’ opens the composition, with Abbey Lincoln singing acapella in an adapted blues form: ‘Choppin’ cotton don’t be slow/Better finish out your row.’ A sense that this will be no ordinary jazz album immediately develops, with Lincoln’s orders – ‘Git to work and root that stump/Driva’ man’ll make ya jump’ – and Roach’s rimshot on the first beat of every bar forming a brilliant evocation of the thrashing of the slave driver’s whip. A lumbering 5/4 slave song develops and Coleman Hawkins offers an anguished, extended solo that is intentionally imperfect and jilting, leaving a reed squeak in the final recording.

There are few songs quite as visceral as ‘Driva’ Man’. While enduring Roach’s rim shots, one can almost picture the tortured labour of slaves on the plantation: the burning and unrelenting sun, coupled with the incessant ‘swinging’ of the slave’s overseer. This is a frightening evocation of American slavery that, like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, is unapologetically didactic and explicit. In its music and its lyrics, it conveys the nightmare that continues to haunt the African-American experience.

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From this picture of trauma, Roach leads the listener into the jolting ‘Freedom Day’: a frantic evocation of the moment when emancipation is rumoured to be arriving. Walter Benton (tenor saxophone), Booker Little (trumpet) and Julian Priester (trombone) provide frenzied hard-bop horn solos that epitomise this often furious jazz sub-genre, communicating the sense of disbelief and expectancy that followed Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Whilst the trio’s solos convey a state of reckless euphoria, Abbey Lincoln’s lyrics give a more cautionary message, warning of ‘Rumors flying’, must be lyon’. At the end of the song she succinctly characterises the reality of life as a modern African-American: ‘Dim my path and hide the way. But we’ve made it Freedom Day.’

Abbey Lincoln’s lyrics expose the reality that African-Americans in the 1960s still lived under a cycle of institutional racism, suffering in inadequate schools and neglected inner cities. Unfortunately, one need only look at the United States’s draconian criminal justice system to recognise that Lincoln’s scepticism about the prospects for true emancipation was well founded.

After ‘Freedom Day’, Roach moves on to the album’s magnum opus, ‘Medley: Triptych / Prayer / Protest / Peace’. In ‘Prayer’, Lincoln oscillates between high and low in call and response with Roach’s ostinato, performing in long legato lines what is essentially a wordless spiritual. Triptychs are commonly employed for religious imagery, often for scenes depicting the crucifixion. If ‘Prayer’ alludes to Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, then ‘Protest’ seems to echo the horror of Christ’s execution; in the album’s most avant-garde moment, Lincoln screams for a minute and 20 seconds, accompanied only by the continuous rolling figures of Roach. There are few works of music that come close to this moment’s sheer, unrestrained outburst of rage — the sudden loss of innocence and feeling of total abandon, the terror of Edward Munch’s The Scream, the discord and anarchy of Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’. This may be the most unpleasant moment on the album, but it is also the most powerful, acting as a necessary exorcism of a trauma that has festered over generations. Concluding the Triptych, ‘Peace’ envisages the release from the psychological chains of slavery that was rumoured in ‘Freedom Day’ — Lincoln sighs, purrs and laughs, again to the backdrop of Roach’s ostinato. ‘Triptych’ is unlikely to be played on the radio any time soon, but this experiment with free jazz is one of the most vivid expressions of trauma in all music. It establishes an intrinsic link between political and social freedom for African Americans with the advent of free jazz and musical freedom.

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In the final two tracks of Freedom Now, Roach makes a departure from the American experience, eagerly exploring the African heritage that was suppressed by slavery. Like ‘Driva’ Man’, ‘All Africa’ opens with a duet, performed by Lincoln and Babatunde Olatunji (a Nigerian drummer and social activist). However, Lincoln’s lyrical content is radically different to the album’s first track: she talks of a ‘chant and a hum,/And a black hand laid on a native drum’. Frenetic excitement pervades the track as Lincoln explores the richness of the African diaspora and builds a rough foundation myth. She joyously recites names of African ethnic groups, ‘Angoli, Biombii, Mbole, Malinke…’, whilst Olatunji interjects proverbs in the Yoruba dialect about freedom. Quickly following this is an extended percussion ensemble involving Roach and three guest percussionists, which ultimately builds to a wild cacophony of noise.

Without a pause, Roach moves on to the conclusion of Freedom Now with ‘Tears for Johannesburg’, a 5/4 ostinato in B-flat minor that, like ‘Triptych’, is wordless. An explicit reference to the Sharpeville Massacre, the final track on the album acknowledges that racial conflict continues to be a persistent blight on America and the World. ‘Tears for Johannesburg’ could be seen to epitomise the experience of the emancipated slave: it began, like the beginning of the song, with discordant sounds of suffering, yet by the Sixties it had formed into a rich and diverse movement that continues to have immense resonance today.

As Freedom Now fades out, one wonders where this perpetual struggle for freedom will lead. Though the album charts a story of progress, Abbey Lincoln’s nagging sense of skepticism, ‘Rumors flying’, must be lyin’./Can it really be?’ will surely be prescient for decades to come.