Why has Max Roach, a founder of modern jazz percussion, failed to record for an American company in almost a decade?

Roach, 54, who opens a six-night engagement at Blues Alley Tuesday, says he gave up on U.S. firms because they wanted him to play disco and fusion (jazz-rock) music.

"They want people to work with a plantation mentality," he explains. "Everybody is obliged to go in the same direction."

From 1971 to 1976, Roach did not record. He performed mainly in Europe and taught at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Since 1976, he had more than a dozen albums released, all but one on European and Japanese labels. (They are available from local specialist dealers like Record & Tape Ltd. and Discount Record Shop, and importer Dan Serro, 165 William St., New York, N.Y. 10038).

He produces his own record sessions and leases the tapes to foreign companies. He made an exception by recently leasing to Columbia Records the tape of a 1955 jam session with Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins.

It was accidential, Roach says, that he resumed recording. In 1976, he was on a European tour, and the Italian Communist party asked him to record something special. He wrote a suite for saxophonist Archie Shepp and himself. The album they recorded won the Grand Prix International de Disque in France.

The drummer says he has enough material to make up 30 albums, including more tapes with Brown, and others with Abbey Lincoln, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Jordon and choirs.

"I find it artistically rewarding -- these lease deals," he notes. "I get to produce my own sessions and control how the product is marketed. I believe that musicians are going to have to do something for themselves.

"I've been pursued by American companies, but nothing has happened mainly because of my asking price. None of them is approaching me with a nice deal." b

Meanwhile, a steady stream of Roach albums continues to be released from outside the United States. Many of his recent records have featured him in tandem with only one other instrumentalist.

"Force" (Uniteledis UNI 289 '76), a two-record set made with Shepp in memory of Mao Tse-tung, achieves mixed results. Roach's work is superb, but Shepp is not his creative equal.

The drummer, for example, takes a simple seven-note motive on "Sweet Mao" and develops it endlessly, building until the variations are exhausted. But Shepp enters, bearing a burdensome string of conventional 16th note phrases that have little rhythmic, melodic or tonal variety. Many of his statements sputter off into muffled fragments as he rushes from one idea to another.

The same album includes "South Africa," featuring a marvelous Roach solo.

He maintains three rhythms at once, constantly varying meter and keeping thematic development in view.

The drummer and South African pianist Dollar Brand are more compatible than Roach and Shepp. Musicians from different but similar cultures, they adapt well to each other's needs and abilities in "Streams of Consciousness" (Baystate RVJ-6016).

In the album title piece covering all of side one, the pair cross paths but never obstruct one another. Brand opens with some roaring tremolos, followed by sparkling melody. Next comes Roach, dramatically rolling his snare and tom-tom drums. Then they quietly join each other as Brand offers a ringing line.

"Acclamation," on side two, contains a festive tribal melody to which Roach plays gentle counter-rhythms. His solo cymbal work is outstanding.

Roach, who first made his reputation in the jazz upheaval of the 1940s playing with luminaries like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, keeps pace with the newest musical experiments. "Birth and Rebirth" (Black Saint BSR 0024), recorded with 34-year-old experimentalist Anthony Braxton, is proof of his continuous search for new challenges.

All the compositions were written jointly, and they show some stylistic compromise by each man. Saxophonist Braxton, who takes a mathematical approach to jazz, plays more conventionally than usual, even swinging in sprightly fashion. And Roach sometimes plays the overaggressive percussionist in the manner of the younger musicians.

They're at their most relaxed on "Magic and Music," "Soft Shoe" and "Dance Griot," all bright pieces performed at skipping tempos. The music has an almost ingenuous quality. Roach also gets an intriguing effect from tuned drums on "Tropical Forest."

Though the scale is grander on "Birth," the results are less even. Braxton plays a haunting opening, followed by the two playing furiously at each other. But here as on other quick tempo pieces, Braxton's relentless vertical melodic approach doesn't swing. His patterns sound the same for too long.

The obvious drawback on these albums is that Roach overshadows his partners. He's a musical giant and needs to be paired with his peers. He scheduled to perform a duet concert with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor in New York in December. That's a start. Why not record him in tandem with musical peers from his generation -- Gillespie, Rollins, Milt Jackson?

Perhaps because Roach can do very well, thank you, by himself. He does so in "Max Roach Solos" (Baystate RVJ-6021), a highly charged collection of unccompanied performances.

Probably no other jazz percussionist could sustain imagination or listener interest in a solo album. Roach is a melodic drummer, who plays with precise clarity and powerful rhythmic force.

On "Big Sid," written for pioneer drummer Sid Catlett, and "Five for Paul," Roach delivers a clear theme, shortens and lengthens it, turns it inside out and throws it back at his listeners in embellished form.

The signs are that Max Roach will continue to challegne himself. He's not letting his ideas become stale. The forthcoming concert with Taylor is a case in point.

Roach told Down Beat, "Our music reflects the democratic way more than anything else. You know, a guy introduces a thing, and we all get a chance to say something about it, get a chance to make something."