From the get-go the message is clear: Hang on, there’s no looking back. The ’60s have arrived.
This 1961 Impulse Records session is explosive, iconoclastic, and seminally political, radiating both rage and transcendent elation. Those who still thought of Max as a bopper awoke to find the master penning and playing tunes on the cutting edge. Max is brilliant here at breaking the rules because he helped write them.
A previous LP, Freedom Now Suite, more commonly recognized as a classic, employed a similar direction, also with a political edge and themes of black empowerment. But Bitter Sweet survives the test of time as a more fully realized, focused work. It’s an under-recognized classic featuring peak work from a tremendous lineup.
“Garvey’s Ghost” opens with Max’s African 6/8 groove. The crunchy, bouncing-off-the-wall live sound totters on distortion. Thick chord clusters burst in, topped by Abbey Lincoln’s eerie wordless vocals. The harmonic tension makes neck hairs bristle, and that intensity never wanes. Throughout the disc, Max delivers inspired solos of mini-structural statements that—much like a sax solo—build between paused “breaths.”
The soulful, defiant ballad “Mendacity” comments on crooked politicos along with images of denied civil rights and lynching. Eric Dolphy’s dam-bursting alto solo is a plaintive, bluesy cry that’s one of his best on record.
“Man From South Africa” is essentially a 7/4 blues, but Max and bassist Art Davis liberate the groove, alternating between outlining the 1-2/1-2/1-2-3 theme and riding straight through. Max and soloists phrase with effortless freedom, making the odd meter almost superfluous. Everything here is torridly “in the moment.”
This album comprises forty minutes of strong personal vision—and represents some of Max’s best post-bop drumming. And Max’s musical foreshadowing was correct: The new decade was to be both tumultuous and inspiring.