New Soil, True Soil, Blue Soil

The great jazz drummer Pete La Roca died Monday at 74. I saw him play only once, this past spring with George Braith at Fat Cat. He sounded great! The right touch, the right tone, the right feel, the utterly folkloric left hand. 

As these purveyors of jazz authenticity leave the planet, the music loses connection to why it was created in the first place.

However, the recorded documentation of the music in its prime only seems easier and easier to access. Just recently, extended bootlegs of La Roca with Sonny Rollins in Europe and John Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery have become commonly available. Of course, I don't know what La Roca (who became a lawyer) would think of these bootlegs...

Tom Lord lists about 50 studio sessions by La Roca during his active decade, 1957-1967. So many classic dates with Sonny Clark, Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Art Farmer, Joe Henderson, George Russell, his own Basra, many others. There's even a group of significant piano trios where La Roca's muscular swing encouraged that genre to be more dialogue-based: Jaki Byard, Don Freidman, Steve Kuhn, and especially Paul Bley.

In our interview, Keith Jarrett remembers meeting La Roca:

While I was still at Berklee, I was working upstairs at the Jazz Workshop at the bar, accompanying singers, which I liked. We had a break, and I went downstairs and didn’t hear any music, and I thought what’s going on? Herb knew me from Berklee big band class, and John said, so you want to play? I said, “Yeah!” John said, “Ray’s late – we want to get started. Pete La Roca’s on drums.” I said, “OK!” meaning, hey, OK, of all the drummers I had heard up until then, Pete was one of the guys I considered as one of the best examples of how you could play without sounding like anybody else. And his time concept was unusual and I realized this is not amateur night anymore! That was a wonderful few tunes. 

After La Roca's "comeback" record Swingtime, he was interviewed by José Francisco "Pachi" Tapiz for Tomajazz.  It's a fascinating and somewhat contentious read, full of valuable insights. It's not the whole story, though: among other omissions, La Roca doesn't mention his most famous controversy. His album Turkish Women at the Bath, with all-La Roca tunes and a rare chance to hear John Gilmore in a quartet, was reissued as Bliss under Chick Corea's name. La Roca was understandably upset and sued. It was his last recording for thirty years.

A few years ago, Destination OUT! hosted my take on Paul Bley's Footloose. The links still work, including (within the text) La Roca's solo on "Minor Apprehension" from Jackie McLean's New Soil, which many consider to be one of the first pieces of free jazz.


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