Of course Max Roach isn't the only Jazz drummer to have approached soloing [over the form of the tune, rather than free-form] and I think every great Jazz drummer has the ability to do this as well. It's really an important skill to have and the recorded history of Jazz drumming proves this. This isn't a knock on playing free form drum solos liberated from structure or a steady pulse, but I think you've got to be able to do it both ways. All the greats could as far as I'm concerned...so should we.
Where my problem lies is in the often inability for other musician's to follow you while you are doing this.
Unfortunately I think there is still a real misconception and ignorance that exists out there with regards to what drummers are doing and ultimately capable of when they solo. Regrettably many musicians assume that just we just hit things until we get bored and then somehow bring the band back in. Well, as far I'm concerned there's a lot more to it than that ! I can't count the number of times that I've played a drum solo over form and purposely tried to make my phrasing clear only to see other members of the band disengaged from what I'm doing. Is my playing really that uninteresting? I know for a fact that this really bugged Max as well and he would defend his music with his fists need be...So maybe the drum solo isn't the best time to check your iPhone, grab a drink or talk to that cute blonde at the bar that you've been eyeing all night?
But I think it goes both ways: certainly the musicians you are playing with have to LISTEN to what you are doing and follow along just as anyone else would their solo (ideally!) but then again, as a drummer you have to be responsible and at least provide some structural references for your fellow musicians to latch onto and a clear statement to finish your solo (think of Tony Williams' with Miles Davis on "Walkin").
Personally I use the melody of the tune I'm playing to guide me through the form rather than counting numbers of bars...so perhaps if you are working with a drummer and you don't know what's going on:
a) sing the melody to yourself while the drummer is soloing and use that as a reference point
b) if the drummer is clearly not playing in time or over the form, listen and watch carefully for the drummer's cue (if there is one!)
c) if you are still lost, ask your drummer what he or she is doing and hopefully build on that
I've experienced this same thing of setting up both the last A and then the top of the head out, in what I thought was pretty bleeding-obvious terms, only to have the band miss it. A lot of musicians- even pretty good ones- actually appear at times to be surprisingly weak rhythmically, and can be easily thrown by things like crashes on 4 at the end of a section, or punctuations otherwise bridging sections, space at the beginning of a section, melodic ideas displaced (I hate that word) by a beat or a half a beat, and anything other than very boxy phrases in general. How they play unaccompanied offers a little bit of a clue as to what they think I'm doing: certain players will not stay strictly in tempo, and will assume that I'm doing the same, bumping unusual phrases over to a what is for them a strong beat, and getting lost in the process.
While that is indeed BS, it does give me pause to simplify a little bit, and pick my spots more carefully, realizing that with the drums there are no harmonic markers to let people know unambiguously exactly where you are. I believe it's better overall practice to maintain some contrast by keeping a balance of straightforward and sophisticated ideas. I also think one thing a drummer should be able to do is bring in a band, so I'm always checking myself to see how I could do that better.
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