Pete La Roca-Basra.

Label: Blue Note Records.

Sadly, Pete La Roca’s career is another case of what might have been. The New York born jazz drummer only released a triumvirate of solo albums during an eventful career that promised much. 

During the early years of his career he worked with Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Tony Scott, Bill Evans, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and Sonny Rollins. By 1965, Pete La Roca had signed to Blue Note Records and released his debut album Basra. Critics called the album a classic and forecast a bright future for the twenty-seven year old.

Three years later, Pete La Roca stopped working as a sideman and at one time, ended up driving a cab in the Big Apple. Later, he attended law school at New York University and it wasn’t until 1979 that Pete La Roca returned to jazz. It was the latest chapter in the story of Pete La Roca which began in 1938.

The future Pete La Roca was born Peter Sims, on the ‘7th’ of April 1938, in Harlem, New York. That was where he was brought up by his mother who was a pianist and his stepfather who played trumpet. However, it was Peter Sims’ uncle Kenneth Bright, a major shareholder in Circle Records and the manager of the rehearsal spaces above the Lafayette Theatre, in Harlem, who introduced him to music.

Peter Sims started to play percussion in public school, and then at the High School of Music and Art and later at the City College of New York. By then, he was playing timpani in the CCNY Orchestra. However, soon Peter Sims became Pete La Roca.

By then, he was still in the early stages of his career and he was playing timbales for various Latin bands. This he continued to do for six years. Then he was spotted by one of the giants of jazz, Max Roach.

In 1957, Max Roach happened to be in Birdland and saw Pete La Roca jamming. He watched the nineteen year old for a while and that was when he remembered that his friend Sonny Rollins was looking for a drummer. Max Roach recommended Pete La Roca to Sonny Rollins who his Trio.

Pete La Roca joined the Sonny Rollins Trio for the afternoon set at the Village Vanguard in 1957. However, only A Night In Tunisia found its way onto A Night At The Village Vanguard when it was released by Blue Note Records in 1958. This was the start of Pete La Roca’s career as a sideman. 

He also recorded with Sonny Clark in 1957, and in 1958 which was a busy one for Pete La Roca. The twenty year old drummer recorded with Tony Scott, Sonny Rollins, Slide Hampton and Jackie McLean on his New Soil album. It was released to critical acclaim by Blue Note Records in August 1959.

As the sixties dawned, Pete La Roca was in demand as a sideman. His big break came early in 1960 when John Coltrane was forming his first quartet after leaving Miles Davis’ band but couldn’t get the musicians he wanted. Miles Davis recommended Pete La Roca who spent ten weeks playing at the Jazz Gallery in New York. This was good experience for Pete La Roca. 

During the rest of 1960 he played on albums by Slide Hampton, JR Monterose and the Steve Kuhn Trio. Reliable, talented and versatile Pete La Roca was regarded as one of jazz’s rising stars.

Still only twenty-three in 1961, Pete La Roca played alongside Bill Barron, Rocky Boyd, Ted Curson, Scott LaFaro, Slide Hampton, Booker Little and the Paul Serrano Quintet. Still Pete La Roca found time to play on Jackie McLean’s Bluesnik album which was released to critical acclaim in February 1962. 

During 1962 Pete La Roca worked with George Russell, Jaki Byard and the Don Friedman Trio. All the time, his reputation was growing as he divided his time between playing live and working in the studio. 

He continued to do this in 1963, working with the Steve Kuhn Trio, Paul Bley and three albums released on Blue Note Records. This includes the first two albums by Joe Henderson. Page One was his debut and was released in October 1963 and nowadays, is regarded as a hard bop classic. It was followed by Our Thing in May 1964 which was proof that Joe Henderson had the potential to become one of the great tenor saxophonists of his generation. Two months later and Johnny Coles’ Little Johnny C was released in July 1964 and finds Pete La Roca playing on the second side of this ambitious album. This was the latest Blue Note Records release to feature Pete La Roca who had also formed his own band.

The twenty-six year old drummer was now dividing his time between his own band and session work. During 1964 Pete La Roca played on albums by Anamari and Art Farmer. In 1965, Pete La Roca would record his debut album. However, before that, he worked on three other albums as sideman.

This included the first two sessions for Freddie Hubbard’s Blue Note Records’ swansong Blue Spirits during February 1965. The album was eventually released in 1967. Pete La Roca then spent March the 8th on a session recording tracks for Charles Lloyd’s album Of Course, Of Course which was released in November 1965. Then on the ‘9th’ and ‘10th’ of April 1965 Pete La Roca recorded another Freddie Hubbard album The Night Of The Cookers which was released later that year. So was his debut album Basra

Pete La Roca had been signed by Blue Note Records and on May the ‘19th’ 1965 he journeyed to the Van Gelder Studio, at at 445 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. He was about to lead the quartet who would record Basra which was produced by Alfred Lion.

Joining drummer Pete La Roca were bassist Steve Swallow, pianist Steve Kuhn and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. They recorded six compositions that day.

This included the Pete La Roca compositions Candu, Tears Come From Heaven and Basra, while Steve Swallow wrote Eiderdown. The other tracks were Ernesto Lecuona’s Malagueña and John La Touche and Jerome Moross’ Lazy Afternoon. These six tracks would become Basra, which was released in October 1965.

When Pete La Roca’s debut album Basra was released it was to widespread critical acclaim. The album is now regarded as a classic and is a reminder of a truly talented bandleader, composer and drummer.

Side A.

Basra was the first of three Pete La Roca solo album. It opens with Malagueña which was written by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona who escaped from Fidel Castro’s clutches in 1960 and settled in Florida. The quartet vamp their way through the track Pete La Roca’s cymbals powering and propelling this impassioned and inspirational cover of a Latin classic. 

It gives way to the bluesy and ruminative sounding Candu, and then what’s without doubt the most complicated track on the album Tears Come From Heaven. When the solos come round tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson sets the bar high. Next up is pianist Steve Kuhn who gives a peerless performance that not even Pete La Roca at the peak of his power can quite match. It’s a close run thing.

Side B.

The third of the three consecutive Pete La Roca compositions is the ten minute title-track Basra. It’s a captivating composition despite never deviating from the same chord. Very different is Lazy Afternoon a beautiful, haunting and heart wrenching ballad that is the highlight of Basra. 

Closing the album is Eiderdown where Joe Henderson’s tenor saxophone takes the lead and is matched every step of the way pianist Steve Kuhn as the tempo rises. Meanwhile the saxophone soars above the arrangement before Steve Kuhn takes centrestage and his fingers fly across the keyboard before bassist Steve Swallow enjoys his moment in the sun. Then Joe Henderson returns and plays with control and subtlety his saxophone quivering as he takes lead and the arrangement swings. Sadly, all too soon the track and Basra is over but the memory remains of this magical album.

There aren’t many jazz musicians who release their debut album and it’s regarded as a classic. That was the case with Pete La Roca’s Basra which was recently reissued by Blue Note Records to celebrate the label’s eightieth anniversary. 

Basra features Pete La Roca at the peak of his powers. He was joined by Steve Kuhn, Steve Swallow and Joe Henderson who all play their part in the sound and success of this classic album. It Pete La Roca’s finest hour and he only released two further solo albums.

Neither 1967s Turkish Women At The Bath nor 1997s Swingtime came close to matching Pete La Roca’s classic album Basra. He had set the bar high with his debut album. This maybe frustrated Pete La Roca who knew he could never reach these heights again? That might explain why he turned his back on jazz, and ended up driving a cab in New York.

Although he made a comeback in 1979, Pete La Roca’s career is a case of what might have been, and Basra is a tantalising taste of what he was capable of at the peak of his powers, during a career that promised so much.

 Pete La Roca-Basra.

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