Max Roach's mixed-media 'study in shapes and sound'
New York — It's hard to discuss Max Roach without bringing in well-worn phrases like ''jazz giant'' and ''musical legend.'' The labels apply - Roach has been called the most influential jazz drummer of all time - and it's a pleasure to give this towering performer, composer, and teacher his due.
Like any giant, Roach likes to keep growing with the years, absorbing new ideas and reaching into new territory. Along with many younger artists, he has become fascinated lately with mixed-media work. Accordingly, he has collaborated with performers in various artistic fields, creating works that overlap the usual boundary lines between disciplines - lines he feels are disappearing, anyway.
His latest exploration is a work called ''Intuitive Momentum,'' due to premiere tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which helped bring the piece together as part of its precedent-setting ''Next Wave'' series. Running just over an hour, the show was developed entirely from improvisations involving Roach, pianist Connie Crothers - an associate of the late jazzman Lennie Tristano - and choreographers Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane.
Danced by a company of five, with the musicians onstage as well, the piece also includes sets by Robert Longo, lighting by Craig Miller, and costumes by Ronald Kolodzie for a full-fledged ''multimedia'' effect. Roach calls it ''a study in shapes and sound'' - or, with a smile, ''a work arrived at by the democratic process.''
Dropping into a rehearsal the other night, I found Roach looking as cool as the proverbial cucumber while he pounded an accompaniment to the jumping Crothers piano and the frenetic gyrations of the dancers. Sitting down later to talk with the two musicians, I was struck by the drummer's clear admiration for his partners, whose energy seemed to awe him a bit. Despite his senior status - in years and reputation - the openness, flexibility, and even humility of his attitude are as admirable as they are impressive.
The idea for this collaboration first hit Roach as he watched Jones and Zane perform in Seattle a year or so ago. He's also the one who suggested Crothers for the piano part. Before the improvisations began, no aspect of the show had been settled on or even discussed. ''If anyone came in with a preconceived idea, '' says Roach, ''we shot it right down.''
In some ways, this wide-open approach was more suited to the musicians than to the dancers. ''Choreographers are used to working in set patterns,'' says Roach. ''But jazz musicians improvise all the time, calling on the knowledge and information they've gathered over the years.'' One challenge of ''Intuitive Momentum'' was meshing all the artists into a smoothly functioning creative unit.
Did they meet the challenge? ''The dancers and the musicians all improvise,'' says Roach, ''within the moods that have been established in our rehearsals. It turned out to work just fine.'' Crothers concurs, adding that the artists thought ''conceptually,'' focusing on the deeper connective tissues of the work so as not to bog down in momentary details.
As experimental as it seems, ''Intuitive Momentum'' can be seen as a logical extension of Roach's whole career. He is famous, after all, for being one of the first jazzmen to decide that drums could do more - much, much more - than just beat time. Decades ago he launched an innovative style that continually bore new fruit: exploring the delicate shadings of percussion instruments, calling on their melodic capabilities, moving into rhythms far removed from the four-to-a-bar of standard jazz.
So it's no big surprise to find Roach on the multimedia route in his quest for new percussion possibilities. He clearly enjoys the challenge of interdisciplinary improvisation, of blending his sonic rhythms with the visual rhythms of dancers, costumes, and lights. If the result is as stimulating as he hopes, jazz and dance fans alike - not to mention the legion of Roach fans - will have yet another facet of his robust career to follow and assess.
If not, he's sure to nose out another promising path before long. And however this show turns out, he feels its methods plug into some of the most tantalizing possibilities on today's artistic scene. ''The different media, the different approaches to expression, are all around us today,'' he says. ''That's one of the good things about this country. And it feels good to get involved with all of them. . . .''