ALBUMS: Attaining A Greater Understanding of Roy Brooks

A scorching, previously unreleased 1970 live recording shines an overdue spotlight on the revered jazz drummer for such icons as Horace Silver and Charles Mingus

Roy Brooks 1970 (Art: Ron Hart)

In discussions of classic jazz musicians, it is tragic that the name Roy Brooks rarely comes up.

Perhaps best known for his work with Horace Silver, including on the iconic “Song for My Father”, Brooks also played with a slew of other legendary figures, including Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and Yusef Lateef among others. Even more overlooked is his work as a bandleader, with many of his releases being issued on obscure labels and now nearly impossible to find.

Understanding is a previously unreleased live recording of a concert that took place 50 years ago in Baltimore. Brooks led a powerhouse unit consisting of Woody Shaw on trumpet, Cecil McBee on bass, Harold Mabern on piano, and Carlos Garnett on tenor saxophone. The recording is wonderfully raw and oozes with an undeniable intensity fueled by an enthusiasm for the civil rights movement that is still relevant today. 

Artist: Roy Brooks

Album: Understanding 

Label: Reel To Real

★★★★★ (5/5 stars)

Apparent from the beginning, Understanding spills over with energy. Album opener “Prelude to Understanding” is a 21-plus minute modal workout. It displays the group’s penchant for oscillating between challenging modal workouts and an undeniable soulful feel, often switching back and forth of just a few bars. Shaw takes the lead with an eleven-minute solo, interrogating spontaneous melodies one moment, and launching into pugilistic flurries of notes the next. The entire ensemble seems to warily dance around one another, always moving with a purpose but using their independence to create a heightened sense of tension. Following highwire solos from McBee and Brooks, the song flows directly into the title track, “Understanding”.

On the surface, the approach here is more direct. Shaw once again takes the lead but plays his solo more in the box, only occasionally pushing his way further out, trying to see what he can get away with. The song in many ways is more relaxed, yet Brooks seems ready to explode at any moment. His cymbal work sizzles, and he accents the end of phrases with pushes in tempo.

Roy Brooks Understanding, Reel to Real 2021

The ensemble moves from strength to strength throughout the concert. On Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce”, the group pulls together and sounds like a fearsome machine playing with a single-minded focus. They oscillate between reverence for the classic tune, and a desire to let their more adventurous spirit break free from its historical orbit. Shaw’s “Zoltan” is a tune the trumpeter would record throughout his career appears here in one of its earliest incarnations and is less developed than when he recorded it with Larry Young or on his own “Love Dance”. But once again, the rawness works in the tune’s favor. The speed they perform at makes it feel like the group is barely holding it together, and Mabern in particular seems to be ready to run off the rails. But these are all good things, a drama unfolding in the listener’s ears. 

The thirty-minute “Taurus Woman” pulls all the disparate sounds of the ensemble together, beginning with a groove that almost recalls Cannonball Adderley. The soloists seem to be content to play inside until suddenly, they’re not. A phrase here, or a few bars there see them jump outside conventional harmony. When Shaw begins to color outside the lines, Mabern and Brooks follow suit expertly and follow him back in with grace. It’s as if each moment was planned out but we all know that’s not how it works. The group’s telepathy is astounding. 

The performance closes with “The Theme”, a short “I Got Rhythm”-style tune. At under five minutes, this song functions as a quick and jubilant ending to the performance. It isn’t mellow or subdued but still feels like an exhalation in its simplicity. 

All respect due to Reel to Real Records for issuing this extraordinary concert. Everything about these performances is a revelation, and while there continues to be great Jazz made today, Understanding captures the unique zeitgeist of this moment of history. Brooks and his bandmates overflow with an enthusiasm fueled by the civil rights movement and by the music they perform. It felt as if the progress in the world was being reflected in the advanced music they made.

As we know, the struggle didn’t end then, and it continues today. But the exuberance of “Understanding” feels like a burst of hope, a celebration that is now being shared with us decades later. 


VIDEO: Producer Zev Feldman discusses Roy Brooks’ Understanding 

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Todd Manning

Todd Manning is a recovering musician who mostly writes about Metal and Jazz various places around the internet, including Burning Ambulance, Cvlt Nation and No Clean singing. He lives in Indianapolis, IN.

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