DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today we continue our "Summer Of Soul" interviews with singer Abbey Lincoln and drummer Max Roach. The two were featured in Questlove's documentary about the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
Listening to Abbey Lincoln's records can move you to tears because of her beautiful voice and her honesty when she sings of joy or pain. Lincoln started her career in the early 1950s as a nightclub singer, cultivating a seductive image. Her public image and self-image started to change in the late '50s when she met drummer and bebop pioneer Max Roach, who introduced her to modern jazz and a performing style influenced by the civil rights movement. They recorded a series of albums together and were married from 1962 in 1970.
Later in her career, she became known for the songs she wrote as well as the ones she interpreted. Abbey Lincoln also had an acting career. She starred in the 1964 film "Nothing But A Man," costarred opposite Sidney Poitier in "For The Love Of Ivy" and was in Spike Lee's film "Mo' Better Blues." We have excerpts of two interviews with her from our archive. But first, let's hear one of Abbey Lincoln's early recordings from 1956.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE WALKED IN")
ABBEY LINCOLN: (Singing) Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. Love walked right in and brought my sunniest day. One magic moment and my heart seemed to know that love said hello, though not a word was spoken.
BIANCULLI: The first of the two Abbey Lincoln interviews we'll hear is from 1986. She told Terry Gross how she got interested in music.
LINCOLN: I'm one of 12 children. And there's an old piano in the house that my father furnished for us. And I was the only one seemingly who was interested in the piano. I found solace there and companionship just sitting and picking out a melody on the piano because it didn't get on my mother's nerves, thank goodness. When I was 14, my sister brought a recording home of Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins - the same day. I heard them both. And he was playing "Body And Soul." I don't remember what Billie was singing.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: When you started singing in nightclubs, well, judging from the cover, anyways, of that same record, you were wearing, like, evening gowns...
LINCOLN: That's late into my career.
GROSS: Oh, that's later on. Yeah.
LINCOLN: Yes. I started as Anna Marie. That's the name my people named me. Anna Marie Wooldridge is the name I was born to. And I met a man named Bob Russell who named me Abbey Lincoln and introduced me to the svelte, chic world of the supper club.
GROSS: Was it hard to fit into it having come from a farm in Michigan?
LINCOLN: Yes because I never really felt it. You know, they talked about my being sexy. And they talked - they said all these things because I had a press agent, of course, you know? And they decided that was the image that they were going to put forth of this wonderful-looking woman who didn't have much talent, though. I mean, she couldn't sing much. This is what I got. They were interested in making money. And I was just biding my time until I found me a man.
LINCOLN: But in the process of all of this, I'm saying, I learned to not trust myself because I wasn't studying to be a - truly an artist. By the time I met Roach, I was already - had made the cover of Ebony magazine. And I had made a movie with Jayne Mansfield called "The Girl Can't Help It." And I had a career that I hadn't planned. And so I left that and went with Roach, with Max. He told me that I didn't have to do things like that.
GROSS: What did you think when he told you that?
LINCOLN: I was relieved. And I believed him because I knew he was a great artist. I had a chance to watch him perform in California. I didn't know anything about Max Roach or Charlie Parker or none of these people because I wasn't approaching the music from that standpoint. I knew the people who were popular, who I'd hear on the radio. And I happened to like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee and Lena Horne.
GROSS: So you met many other jazz musicians at that time?
LINCOLN: I met the jazz musicians when I met Max Roach. That's when...
GROSS: And you started recording with jazz musicians. How did it change your singing? Did you find, like, your phrasing changed or that...
GROSS: ...You would interpret a song any differently with the different kind of accompaniment?
LINCOLN: No. I'm still myself. I'm myself, but I'm more of myself now. There were pointers and that - like, for instance, Max would say to me, sing on the beat because I had a tendency to sing a long line. And I knew where the beat was, but I figured it was somebody else's business and not my own. And I would say to him, well, the band didn't swing. He said to me, you're supposed to swing. You're the - you're supposed to be the rhythm section - things like that.
GROSS: I'd like to play a 1957 recording that you made, which features Max Roach on drums. And Kenny Dorham, Sonny Rollins, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers all perform on it. How did this session come to be?
LINCOLN: I had come to New York to do a screen test for "The Billie Holiday Story." This is years ago. And they told me that after I had came - after I'd come and taken an apartment and everything, they told me that they were going to use Lana Turner or somebody like that - or Ava Gardner. Really, truly. This is the truth, Terry.
But anyway, I was in New York. And I was seeing Max Roach. And he said to me, how would you like to make a jazz album? And I said, I'm not a jazz singer. And he said, well, you're Black, aren't you? That's when I started to see myself through the music on another level. I never thought of music on this level before.
I used to sing songs that Billie Holiday and Sarah and the other singers would sing. And I didn't know what I was saying, really. I was just singing. I would sing "My Man." But I discovered I didn't want that in my life. If I met a man like that, I know what to do for him. You just leave him alone, you know? I didn't want to sing sad songs. And this masochistic woman who tells all, it never appealed to me. So - and since it was done so well - I mean, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and well, Ethel Waters - many women have told this side of the story. Now there's something else to say. And I believe I'm the one (laughter) to say it.
GROSS: Let's listen to this 1957 recording with my guest, Abbey Lincoln.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S HIM")
LINCOLN: (Singing) You can shuffle him with millions, soldiers and civilians. I'd pick him out. In the darkest caves and hallways, I would know him always beyond a doubt. Identification comes easily to me because that's he. You know the way you feel when there is autumn in the air? That's him. That's him. The way you feel when Antoine has just finished with your hair - that's him. That's him. You know the way you feel when you smell bread baking, the way you feel when suddenly a tooth stops aching? Wonderful world, wonderful you - that's him. That's him.
GROSS: That's Abbey Lincoln, recorded in 1957. The interview we heard was recorded in 1986. The next interview we'll hear with her from our archive was recorded in 1993.
GROSS: Let me play one of the songs that you wrote that you recorded on one of your recent albums. And this is called "I Got Thunder"...
GROSS: ..."(And It Rings)." It's a great song.
LINCOLN: Thank you.
GROSS: Tell me something about writing it, about what you wanted to say about yourself in this song.
LINCOLN: Well, there's a complaint about the woman, about the female, you know, especially about Black women. I don't know. I guess it's the same thing for all the women. But if you express yourself, they say you talk too much, and you don't know how to be feminine, and you're a drag, you know? So I said, listen. This is all true. So run because...
LINCOLN: ...I'm not changing anything. I'm everything that you say I am. So don't come around here because love is an emotion that will move you to do things, to say things and to be things, whether it pleases anybody or not.
GROSS: Let's hear Abbey Lincoln singing her own song, "I Got Thunder (And It Rings)." And this is from her album, "The World Is Falling Down."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT THUNDER (AND IT RINGS)")
LINCOLN: (Singing) Some folks talk about my power. Some folks say I'm wild and strong. Others say my style of living makes a man go wrong. I'm a woman, hard to handle. If you need to handle things, better run when I start coming. I got thunder, and it rings 'cause love is an emotion. It'll move to do things, do things, do things. Love is an emotion. It'll move you to do things. I got thunder, and it rings. Some folks talk about the love they're feeling, talk about the love they need.
GROSS: You said that when you discovered jazz and the world of the artists, that you turned into a woman warrior.
GROSS: Tell me a little bit about what you were like as the woman warrior then.
LINCOLN: Well, the first thing I did - I just started to wear my hair natural. That was a crime in 1960, 1957, 1958. A Black woman wasn't supposed to show that she had hair like she had. It was a disgrace to have this kind of hair that they call all these crazy names. So I just glorified my existence, and I said, this is me, and this is my beautiful self, you know? The beauticians thought I was going to ruin their business.
LINCOLN: They did. They said I was after their business. And a lot of people said things. And I started singing songs that were more social. I started writing songs. And I found songs that would express what was in my heart because, you know, Billie Holiday was like this. She didn't sing inane things. She sang about the life that she lived. She may have been masochistic and all of these things, but she sang "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless The Child That's Got His Own" (ph). It's the same reason they remember Bessie Smith - because these were social singers. They weren't just - it wasn't self-aggrandizement, standing in front of people, saying how great I am. But they were singing songs about the people's lives.
BIANCULLI: Abbey Lincoln speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABBEY LINCOLN SONG, "WHEN LOVE WAS YOU AND ME")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to interviews with performers featured in Questlove's documentary, "Summer Of Soul." Let's get back to Terry's 1993 interview with singer Abbey Lincoln.
GROSS: I want to play a recording that you made of a song very associated with Billie Holiday.
GROSS: And it's a very masochistic song, "Don't Explain." But it's just such - it's a beautiful song, nevertheless, you know?
LINCOLN: Yes, forgiving.
GROSS: Yeah. And it's such a beautiful melody. And I love the way you sing it.
LINCOLN: Thank you.
GROSS: Tell me a little bit before we hear it about the influence Billie Holiday had on you. I think you're a very different singer than she is, although I hear the influence that she's had on you. But tell me a little bit about that influence and also if you knew her, if you met her.
LINCOLN: I met her when I was about 23 in Honolulu, and she came to the bar where I was working. It was probably to get away from where she was working 'cause the place was jammed with people. Anyway, she came to see me a couple of times. And I'd run to catch her show, and I saw her magic on the stage, this beautiful woman who would stand perfectly still with her hands like - she was like a doll, and her eyes would slide from one side of the room to the other. And the room was perfectly still.
And I fell further in love with her. This was my - because I was singing a lot of the songs that she sang already from - that I learned on the radio, from the radio. But Billie Holiday was always honest. She didn't bend a note to make her voice sound good. She was - it was in conversation that she sang. And she was sincere and honest. And she never made a record for money. And to me, she is the greatest singer of her era.
GROSS: So do you think what you learned from Billie Holiday wasn't how to phrase as much as it was that you should be yourself?
LINCOLN: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Let's hear your recording of "Don't Explain" back from 1957 from your album "That's Him," your first jazz recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T EXPLAIN")
LINCOLN: (Singing) Hush now. Don't explain. Just say you'll remain. I'm glad you're back. Don't explain. Hush now. Don't explain. You're my joy and pain. Skip that lipstick. Don't explain.
GROSS: That's Abbey Lincoln singing "Don't Explain." On the liner notes of one of your early records, someone quotes Thelonious Monk as having said to you the first time he saw you sing, I like the way you stand.
LINCOLN: No, he never said anything like that to me. Thelonious Monk wouldn't say anything like that to anybody in the first place. He doesn't give a damn about the way you stand. Excuse me, God. Thelonious Monk said to me - after listening to the words that I had written to his song "Blue Monk," he said to me - he came to where I was and whispered in my ear, don't be so perfect. And I said to Max Roach, you know, Thelonious said to me - he said, don't be so perfect. What does he mean? And Roach said, he means make a mistake. And I didn't know what either one of them were talking about.
GROSS: So how do you interpret that now?
LINCOLN: It means that you must reach for something. You have to reach for the sky. If you don't make it, at least you reach for it. So your voice cracked, but you reached for it. You don't play safe. It's not safe Jones (ph). You admit - you take a chance on making a mistake. That's what they meant. And I do. I've learned to sing like that.
GROSS: Well, I just saw you sing in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, and it was a great performance.
LINCOLN: Thank you.
GROSS: And I don't know. It seems like when I see you on stage that you really are feeling the material that you sing. You're not falling back on professionalism...
GROSS: ...Or show business or anything. You seem to really be reaching inside each time you perform.
LINCOLN: That's true. It's the way of the music. Thelonious Monk would be drenched in perspiration and absolutely possessed. Nina Simone, Billie Holiday - it is the - and Charlie Parker even though I didn't see him, but I hear it in his music - it's a possession. It's the muse. They talk about the muse. I'm possessed of a muse, and I belong to her. And she belongs to me. And as long as I sing and I am real and I do nothing to betray the trust, this is what I do. And it's a wonderful experience to come to the stage and to know that everything is all right.
BIANCULLI: Abbey Lincoln recorded in 1993. She died in 2010. After a break, we continue our "Summer Of Soul" interviews, listening back to drummer and bebop pioneer Max Roach. And critic-at-large John Powers reviews "Guilt," a darkly comic Scottish thriller on PBS' "Masterpiece." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEING ME")
LINCOLN: (Singing) All along the way, there were things to do, always some other someone I could be - other things to know, other ways to go to fly a spirit for the stage to show. It wasn't always easy learning to be me. Sometimes my head and heart would disagree.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. We're continuing our "Summer Of Soul" series featuring interviews with performers who were at the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Drummer and composer Max Roach was one of the inventors of modern jazz drumming. Together with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, Roach helped formulate the language of bebop.
In the mid-1950s, Roach teamed up with Clifford Brown to form what many jazz fans regarded as the quintessential bop group of the time. In the early '60s, Roach recorded the album "We Insist! The Freedom Now Speech" (ph), some of the first jazz music inspired by the civil rights movement. Since then, Roach continued to experiment with new forms, collaborating with choreographers, filmmakers and playwrights. In 1988, he became the first jazz musician to receive a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Roach died in 2007.
Before we hear Terry's 1987 interview with Max Roach, let's hear some music. Here's Max Roach and Clifford Brown on Brown's composition "Daahoud."
(SOUNDBITE OF CLIFFORD BROWN'S "DAAHOUD")
GROSS: I'd like to talk about your life a little bit. You got your start, I think, playing in Coney Island for - at sideshows. Is that right?
MAX ROACH: That's true. We used to do, sometimes, 12, 14 shows a day. And we'd have a barker outside, it was - a barker who would say, come on in. And the girls would go out and shake a little bit. And then, we'd come in. We'd do, say, a 40-minute show and have 20 minutes off and you'd go back out - real sideshow. I enjoyed it.
GROSS: What kind of music did you play?
ROACH: Well, we played everything from small group versions of Khachaturian pieces where we - where the fire-eaters would - ladies would dance and put fire all over themselves. And a comedian would say a few jokes. And a lot of fine musicians and dancers and choreographers had to do that for a living. I did it during the summers, you know? And, yeah...
GROSS: You were a teenager then.
ROACH: Teenager. And that was it. You know, in order to master, I guess, your instrument, you have to do everything. I played with the local symphony orchestra. I played the Coney Island sideshows. I played with marching bands. Just - have drums, will travel, so to speak, was my credo at that time.
GROSS: Were you different than the other drummers who were playing in the same kinds of bands you were at the time? Did you know that you were doing something different?
ROACH: No. I'm only - I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. So it's right next to, of course - to Manhattan. And I think we all did the same things. Some of the guys dropped out. Some people dropped, they got married or went to the post office or whatever. But they were some marvelous - I grew up with some marvelous musicians.
GROSS: How did you first meet some of the people who you became very close with and made now classic music together with? I'm thinking of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Did they find you? Did you find them?
ROACH: Well, Dizzy Gillespie heard me at a jam session in a place called Monroe's Uptown House. Clark Monroe was the brother-in-law of Billie Holiday's first husband, Jimmy Monroe. And he was like a kind of a patron for young talent in these after-hour clubs. These after-hour clubs would open up at 4 in the morning and go until 8. So we could work those places and still go to school, Bud Powell and a crowd of us. Well, he heard me. He was with Cab Calloway when he heard me. He says, someday when I get my own band, when I leave Cab Calloway, I would like for you to play for me.
That's how I met Dizzy. And Dizzy got - introduced me to Coleman Hawkins. I got my first record date. And Dizzy was kind of like the catalyst of that whole movement that we called bebop. You know, he brought Charlie Parker. He discovered - in a way, you know, he brought Charlie Parker to New York and Bud Powell and all these wonderful people. He kind of had a group around him, you know? And I was just fortunate enough to be part of that. But that's how I really got started.
GROSS: You were one of the first drummers to play bebop. And you were one of the first people to figure out how to drum in the kind of fiery sessions that were being played. What were some of the challenges that that presented to you?
ROACH: Well, when they played fast, they played very fast. It was a period where instrumental virtuosity was, in our area, in the jazz area, was now - prevailed because during the war, you know, we had an extra - the Second World War - we had an extra 20% cabaret taxes, very complex. Simply - to put it very simply, it was - if an entrepreneur hired, he had to pay for us. He had to pay a city tax. Like, in New York, he had to pay the state tax and a federal tax. And upon that, he had - up on that - on top of that, he had to pay a 20% government tax called entertainment tax if he had a singer, if he had public dancing or dancing on a stage or a comedian.
This really heralded the demise of big bands during that time. This tax was just awful, you know? So the people who really got the jobs were the virtuoso instrumentalists. Everybody went home and practiced, practiced, practiced. And then that was the beginning of bebop. Like, the people who sort of - Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Shearing, the virtuoso players were the ones who people would come and sit down. Everybody began to sit and listen to the music rather than get up and dance to it. That was the beginning of it.
GROSS: What rhythms had you been playing before? And what rhythms did you shift into playing once you started playing bop because you really had - you had to invent new rhythms. You had to invent new styles.
ROACH: Yeah, well, also, I had help, too. I had a lot of help. I had - my mentors were people like Big Sidney Catlett and Chick Webb and Jo Jones with the Count Basie band, for folks who don't know. These were people who played with Louis Armstrong. And Sidney Catlett did and later went with Benny Goodman. Sidney Catlett took Gene Krupa's place when Krupa started his own band.
But all these folks - they were doing pretty much the same thing but only in large band context. When you played in a small band, you had to do more. More was required of you because there were less people. It was like playing in a string quartet vis a vis a symphony orchestra. It's much more interesting for the individual player, of course. And also, it's interesting for the composer and the conductor and the soloist. But when you play in a smaller context, everybody has to do more to fill up the sound.
So this was required of us, actually. And I don't think we were aware of it excepting that very small band I worked in first, and it was Dizzy's. I worked in small bands, of course, all around the city at that time. But Dizzy was the one that - his band with Charlie Parker and Oscar Pettiford and Bud Powell or Charles Mingus - that was a real - all the virtuoso people got together. And that's when we knew that you - everybody had to be kind of busy. So consequently, they were - you heard more drums. You heard more piano. You heard more this and that and the other to fill it out. That's to put it very simply, of course (laughter).
GROSS: Right. Well, to put it less simply, we'll hear some of what you were playing then (laughter). This is from the mid-1940s, and this is my guest, Max Roach, as recorded with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. And we're going to hear "Ko-Ko."
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "KO-KO")
GROSS: That was "Ko-Ko" as recorded in 1945 with my guest Max Roach on drums and Miles Davis on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto saxophone.
Does it bring back memories for you? Do you listen back to that much?
ROACH: It sure does. And it'd be - Charlie Parker at that time, as well as Dizzy, the music was very, very fresh. And I guess you would equate it with what we hear today from people like Anthony Braxton, at least they treated us that way. We were the new breed on the scene. And they would say things, well, like - the critics would say Dizzy sounds like he's playing with mouth full of marbles, and Charlie Parker was playing scales from a saxophone book, just only scales, and Max Roach dropped bombs. I don't know (laughter). But it's interesting. Bud Powell had no left hand. And it was, you know, we were criticized, but some of it was valid, I thought, you know?
ROACH: We had a long way to go, you know.
BIANCULLI: Drummer Max Roach speaking with Terry Gross in 1987. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAX ROACH'S "THE DRUM ALSO WALTZES")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're featuring interviews with performers who were at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival depicted in the Questlove documentary "Summer Of Soul." Let's get back to Terry's interview with drummer Max Roach.
GROSS: Was this the life you had planned on when you wanted to become a jazz musician? 'Cause you started playing at a time when the big bands...
ROACH: Right, right.
GROSS: ...Were still around - and being a jazz musician meant going on tour with Earl Hines or Cab Calloway...
GROSS: ...One of the - Duke Ellington, one of the big bands. But you actually came of age. You know, you grew right after that.
ROACH: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: You came of age in a time when it was small groups, as you were saying before. And the life just became very different.
ROACH: It did. Well, I hadn't planned on really becoming - taking jazz music that seriously at the time. But the war and all the things that did happen - and then while I was in my senior year at Boys High, I'd said I had been - I met this gentleman Clark Monroe and worked his after-hour club. Well, Sonny Greer, Duke's great drummer, was ill. And the - most of the great drummers were in the Army, like Jo Jones, Sidney Catlett, et cetera. I could read music. So, you know, Clark - 'cause no - in those after-hour spots, you played - as I said before, for shake dancing, you just played Khachaturian. You did all kinds of things.
And when Sonny Greer got sick, Duke Ellington called Mr. Monroe up for a - did he know a drummer who could play a show? Duke was at the New York Paramount. He said, I got a kid who works at my club that plays a show. And I went down to the New York Paramount - to make a long story short - got on the stage and looked at Mr. Greer's music stand. There was no music stand and no music. And I couldn't play by ear at that time, you know? I was about 17. So everything was by ear.
So Mr. Ellington, see - before the curtain came up, he looked at me and saw the fright - fear in my face and said, keep one eye on me and one eye on the acts on the stage. And I made it through. But then I made up my mind I wanted to be in this area, the music, 'cause Duke had - all the theater and the drama and the pageantry was just surrounding him when he presented a show. And that's when I really decided that that was what I wanted to do.
GROSS: In the 1960s, in the early 1960s, you started to play music inspired by the civil rights movement. Had you become an activist then?
ROACH: Well, I guess we always have been, you know? It's something that you - as I - people ask me that quite often. But I go back to Bessie Smith with "Black Mountain Blues" and then to Duke Ellington with his "Black, Brown And Beige." And it's always been there. Ledbetter always spoke about the issues and the times that existed. And many of the old Black folk singers from the South, the street musicians, dealt with it. And so to me, it wasn't - it was just I had an opportunity to say something. And I used - in fact, the suite was commissioned by the youth movement of the NAACP. And we premiered it here in Philadelphia at one of their conventions, that's what it was. In 1960, it was - we were originally commissioned to do something for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. And so that's how it came about.
GROSS: Was it at all risky for you to do politically inspired music? Were you going to - would - did you run into any trouble in getting recording dates afterwards or club dates because of your involvement in the civil rights movement? And, you know, I don't know how you were perceived after that.
ROACH: I don't think so. I'll tell you what did happen that was very positive. It sneaked into South Africa around - it was - it went to South Africa, it didn't sneak in it.
GROSS: The album.
ROACH: It was taken to South Africa as a jazz musician's album until people read the liner notes put out by Nat Hentoff. And the pieces were a comment - because Oscar Brown Jr., of course, was the lyricist on the work. It was a comment on the things that happened in Charlottesville, the massacre and things like that. So when the authorities in South Africa realized that this was not just simply a jazz album, they banned it. And it hit the UPI and AP. And it became a celebrity record. And it sold more records, I guess, than anything else - anything I had ever made at that time.
So something came out of it because of that. And the musicians from South Africa, like Hugh Masekela and Alibrandi - they were listening and buying it and taping it and things like that. But it was - it's amazing how things turn around; see? So the "Freedom Now Suite" - that was an - but I've always been an activist. I've got - at that time, of course, my children were young. But you're always thinking about, you know, their future as well. And there has to be - if they're going to come up and be responsible human beings, they have to have education and the things like everyone else has. And the society has to accommodate that. So I guess I've always been an activist because of that.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for joining us today and talking with us. Thank you for being here.
ROACH: Wow. Thank you, Terry. It was a pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Drummer Max Roach in 1987 speaking with Terry Gross. We conclude our series of interviews with performers featured in the documentary "Summer Of Soul" on Monday with Mavis Staples and Gladys Knight. Let's hear Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln on "Freedom Day" from Roach's album "We Insist! The Freedom Now Speech," inspired by the civil rights movement.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM DAY")
LINCOLN: (Singing) Whisper. Listen. Whisper. Listen. Whispers say we're free. Rumors flying - must be lying. Can it really be? Can't conceive it, can't believe it, but that's what they say. Slave no longer, slave no longer - this is freedom day. Freedom day, it's freedom day. Throw those shackle and chains away. Everybody that I see says it's really true. We're free.
BIANCULLI: Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers reviews "Guilt," a darkly comic Scottish thriller from PBS "Masterpiece." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "SUPERA")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new PBS crime series "Guilt," two Scottish brothers try to avoid the fallout of a hit-and-run accident. The first episode premieres Sunday on PBS' "Masterpiece" and can be streamed on Passport and the Masterpiece Prime Video Channel. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says the series made him tense, but in a good way.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Ever since Watergate, it's become commonplace to say that it's not the crime, but the coverup, that takes you down. While this may be true of political or financial malfeasance, sometimes a crime is so grievous that covering it up might seem to be the smart move. That's the move that gets made in "Guilt," a darkly comic Scottish thriller about two Edinburgh brothers who do a bad thing, then scramble to avoid the consequences. The latest offering of PBS' "Masterpiece," this four-part series has a verve that made me think of the TV series "Fargo," which I mean as high praise. Supercharged by live-wire performance by star Mark Bonnar, the show starts breezy, and then deepens.
"Guilt" begins with sleek Max McCall - that's Bonnar - and his shambly younger brother Jake, played by Jamie Sives, driving drunkenly home after a wedding. On a deserted residential street, they hit an old man and kill him. The guileless Jake wants to call the cops, but the overbearing Max is a high-powered lawyer who insists that turning themselves in will ruin them. And so they drag the dead man back to his home and try to make it look like he died of natural causes.
At first, luck is on their side. Turns out the old man was dying of pancreatic cancer and the authorities assume that's what killed him. Then the victim's American niece, Angie - nicely played by Ruth Bradley - turns up for the funeral and begins asking questions. Before the brothers know it, they're dealing with a drunken detective, an old woman across the street whose deadpan demeanor hides all manner of invisible wiles, and a gangster played by the wonderful Scottish actor Bill Paterson, who's been in everything from "The Singing Detective" to "Fleabag."
As if that weren't enough, Jake and Angie fall for each other. They bond over naming the best Bowie record, while Max's wife, Claire, who feels trapped in their glossy, soulless house, is being wooed by a woman at the gym. Max keeps telling Jake that everything is under control, but every time they think they're safe, a new witness or clue appears. The show echoes with the sounds of other shoes dropping. And neither brother trusts the other because they're so different, as we hear in this early scene, when Jake asks Max how he slept.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GUILT")
JAMIE SIVES: (As Jake) How did you sleep?
MARK BONNAR: (As Max) Very well. My pillows are Hungarian goose down. They essentially cradle the neck.
SIVES: (As Jake) Can we talk about the fact that we killed a man?
BONNAR: (As Max) Why would we want to do that?
SIVES: (As Jake) Well, don't you feel that, Max?
BONNAR: (As Max) What?
SIVES: (As Jake) The guilt.
BONNAR: (As Max) Jacob was dying. Pancreatic cancer - that's a carnival of pain. If he was here now, he'd probably thank us.
SIVES: (As Jake) I think he'd want to at least touch on the fact that we killed him.
BONNAR: (As Max) Look. We gave him a dignified exit. Now someone finds him, he's spruced up. And there's not a dry eye in the church.
POWERS: Now, you may want to put on the subtitles when you watch "Guilt." The accents are as richly Scottish as a deep-fried Mars bar. But don't let that put you off. This is a program that grabs you. The tension never lets up it. Yet, it possesses a core of human feeling, starting with the warped relationship between the brothers. A failed rock musician who now runs a floundering used record store, Jake is a sympathetic forest creature of a man. He's even bearded in shaggy. And he feels bad about their fatal hit-and-run. Warmly played by Jamie Sives, he's an essentially decent guy who becomes less eager to turn himself in when he falls for Angie. He finally has something to lose.
Even as we root for Jake, Bonnar's bravura as the hubristic, cold-blooded Max makes us yearn for his comeuppance. This pale, white-haired lawyer, with his gimlet eyes, vicious teeth and smug smile, resembles some sort of deep-sea barracuda that's been bleached from living so long with no light. Rivetingly awful and increasingly frantic, Max is the kind who, when he assures you that everything is fine, you better start looking for the exits.
"Guilt" is an apt title for the show, which offers colliding versions of what the word means. For Jake, guilt is personal, something you feel when you do something you know is wrong. For Max, it's a legal notion with no morality or emotion attached. If you get away with it, you're not guilty. In between, you find the show's other characters, who, to different degrees, are all doing things they feel they shouldn't really be doing. There's plenty of guilt to go around. Of course, in life, there always is. As the late Ohio humorist Erma Bombeck famously said, guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.
BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the new PBS series "Guilt," beginning Sunday on "Masterpiece" and streaming on Passport and the Masterpiece Prime Video Channel. Monday on FRESH AIR, for the Labor Day holiday, we conclude our "Summer Of Soul" series with interviews with Mavis Staples and Gladys Knight. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE")
GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) I bet you're wondering how I knew, baby, baby, baby, 'bout your plans to make me blue with some other girl you knew before. Between the two of us girls, you know I loved you more. It took me by surprise, I must say, when I found out yesterday. Don't you know that I heard it through the grapevine? Oh, I heard it through the grapevine not much longer would you be mine, not much longer would you be mine. Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. Oh, I'm just about, just about, just about to lose my mind.
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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