Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street

Artist: Clifford Brown & Max Roach

Year: 1956

Genre: Hard Bop

Grade: A

The drums announce themselves with thundering crashes before settling into an agitated groove, apocalyptic, an urban swirl of foreboding and prophetic introduction, emerging out of the Basin Street underground and casually off into the night. On the LP cover, Max Roach is barely visible from behind his foregrounded drum kit, looking off into the distance.

“What Is This Thing Called Love” announces the final album by the legendary Clifford Brown/Max Roach with reckless abandon. There is added agitation to the arrangements, as if Roach and Brown are both retroactively fighting back against time.

Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street is the final recorded appearance by trumpeter Brown and pianist Richie Powell. Their impending car crash, in hindsight, can’t be ignored—shadows filling every space. A nervous atmosphere haunts the record, and even drives it forward. Roach delivers the most ferocious and intense performance of his career, while Brown and saxophonist Sonny Rollins match each other in spirited vehemence.

The result is both ancient and infinite — the hardest hard bop ever recorded.

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Every song carries a dark, foreboding undercurrent — subdued, yet openly expressive — but there is still room for Brown & Roach’s signature optimism. “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” is warm and summery, while the fast-paced “Powell’s Prances” heedlessly bops away at breakneck speed.

However, it’s the edgier moments of introspection that Brown & Roach have placed more emphasis on. The cover of “I’ll Remember April” is propelled by a nervous energy that never ceases (mostly owing to Roach’s percussive attack). Meanwhile, “Time” — one of Richie Powell’s masterpieces — plays like an eerie mixture of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.

But it is the final song, “Gertrude’s Bounce,” the Brown & Roach swansong, that ends things with a subtle bang. The melody is almost sing-song in its casual demeanor, yet the breakdown of the chorus carries an astute hint of modality, causing the entire composition holds an impossible sense of mysticism.

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Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street is the sound of things ending too soon. And it almost sounds like the musicians, uncannily, can realize. It is a fitting, cogent end to the greatest partnership in hard bop history.

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