Explosive 1970 All-Star Quintet Led by Drummer Roy Brooks, Ft. Woody Shaw, Harold Mabern, Carlos Garnett, and Cecil McBee in 3-LP/2-CD Special Set ‘Understanding’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Co-founders Zev Feldman (aka “The Jazz Detective”) and Cory Weeds deliver another gem, Understanding, for mid-July’s RSD Drops on their Reel to Real label, as they return to Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom sponsored by The Left Bank Jazz Society, the site for last Fall’s burning set, The George Coleman Quintet in Baltimore. Understanding is an even fierier quintet performance, recorded a year earlier in 1970, featuring The Detroit-born unique drummer and percussionist Roy Brooks leading a quintet comprised of trumpeter Woody Shaw, tenor saxophonist Carlos Garnett, pianist Harold Mabern, and bassist Cecil McBee, a top echelon group by any measure.

The 3-LP/2-CD set includes only six selections, all but one over 20 minutes with one extending over a half hour. These lengthy improvisational jams were common in live shows during this era.  In fact, upon first listen this writer was immediately comparing the combustibility of these recordings to Lee Morgan – Live at the Lighthouse (1971) and Freddie Hubbard’s Night of the Cookers Vol. 1 & 2 (1965), similar heated exercises in hard bop cutting. What all three have in common is exceptionally energetic trumpeters -Shaw, Morgan, and Hubbard and Morgan together, respectively as well as Harold Mabern at piano for all three recordings. This is not to steal any thunder from leader Roy Brooks, whose larger-than-life presence inspires these potent performances.

Brooks does not have many dates as leader, known mostly as a sideman for Horace Silver (appears on the classic Song for My Father), and worked aside Chet Baker, Yusef Lateef, and Charles Mingus (notably on the 2020 5-disc set Charles Mingus – Live in Detroit/Strata Concert Gallery/46 Selden, which we covered on these pages).  Brooks also worked alongside max Roach in the percussion ensemble M’Boom.  Brooks passed away in 2005 after a bumpy career where he battled with bipolar disorder.  This date is clearly when he was in peak form and you’ll hear one of Brooks’ signature instruments, the musical saw. He later invented a device, the “breath-a-tone,” with which he could change the pitch of his drums as he played. You won’t hear that one here but you will on the Mingus recording. Brooks, who is mic’ed prominently in these mixes, is one of the hottest, creative, imaginative drummers to ever wield the sticks in jazz. 

As is customary with Feldman projects, this comes with an elaborate booklet with comprehensive liners by Detroit-based jazz authority Mark Stryker, a new interview with McBee, Garnett, Reggie Workman, and Louis Hayes, as well as recollections from Brooks’ classmates Charles McPherson and Herb Boyd. The 3-LP set will be available on July 17 and the 2-CD set on July 23.  All proceeds from the release benefit the non-profit Detroit Sound Conservatory. 

One of the elements that make these famous ballroom Baltimore dates so riveting is the off-the-charts level of audience excitement and vocal participation. These are some of the most intense, white-hot jazz exchanges you’ll hear on any recording. Shaw, for one, was known for that but pairing him with these cats brings to it to a higher level. The set begins on Disc 1 after the introduction into a 42-minute blazing hard bop communion comprised of the Brooks-composed prelude and the title track, followed by an arguably even more furious rendering of Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce.”  Disc 2 features Shaw’s “Zoltan” (first heard on organist Larry Young’s 1965 classic Unity) and Garnett, who steps up to equal the fire of Shaw and Brooks, who penned the 32 and a half minute “Taurus Woman.” The set closes with a brief, four a half minute “The Theme,” from Miles Davis.  Across both discs you will hear aggressive, mind-bending solos from each quintet member, engaging interplay, and unmatched intensity.

When Feldman and Weeds both describe the music in terms like “jump out of the speakers and grab you,” take it that ‘unmatched intensity’ is not hyperbole.  You may find your speakers emitting steam. 

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