Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins' musical footprints stretch back to the 1920s, when he played with Louis Armstrong in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. It's true that Hawkins was one of the forerunners of bebop, and went on to play and record with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane. But Hawk's signature recording of the standard "Body and Soul dates back to 1939, when he was playing in Europe with legends like Benny Carter and Django Reinhardt. Hawkins is a star Bennie Wallace has sailed by for many a year, and that shows in the reverence inherent in Disorder at the Border: The Music of Coleman Hawkins, which focuses on Hawk's pre-bebop career.
Even before the rest of the band comes in on the title track, Donald Vega's swinging piano solo sets the tone for the evening at the Haus de Berliner Festspiel: This is going to be all about fun, all about passion, and all about a time when jazz aimed at your heart first and your head second. By the time the full orchestra hits it, the crowd is solidly on board. Why wouldn't it be, given the array of talent onstage and the crackerjack chart Anthony Wilson had written for them? Besides, when a nine-piece band sounds like a thirty-piece juggernaut on "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, you have got to stand up and cheer!
Wallace's tenor may not have Hawkins' depth, but there's a fire to Wallace's performance that is hard to resist. He draws you in on the sultry "La Rosita, and his take on the aforementioned "Body and Soul is letter-perfect, the unaccompanied solo at the end his best moment. Wallace also allows himself a little playfulness: His arrangement of "Honeysuckle Rose starts out as the heartfelt ballad we've all come to know, but a quick fusillade from drummer Alvin Queen morphs the tune into a double-time swing piece Fletcher Henderson would have loved.
Disorder is all about the orchestra. Remember, that era was more about units than soloists; the orchestra's primary role was as chorus and scene-setter, with many "solos taken by entire sections. The group that backs Wallace does its job well, framing each piece so the drama is maximized, and energy builds even though the soloist hasn't changed his attack. There are standouts, to be sure, most notably Terell Stafford. The former Bobby Watson sideman wails harder than he has in quite some time, and his solo on the title track is a definite attention-getter. Ray Anderson's trombone is wild and untamed, and Anthony Schroeder's baritone plumbs the depth Wallace only flirts with.
Some love letters are meant to be shared, and Bennie Wallace's ode to the Hawk is one of them. Disorder at the Border is a focused portrait of a great artist from a time when musicians looked outward, not inward, and the object of the exercise was to get you on the dance floor.
Personnel: Bennie Wallace: tenor sax; Terell Stafford: trumpet; Ray Anderson: trombone; Jesse Davis: alto sax; Brad Leali: alto sax; Adam Schroeder: baritone sax; Donald Vega: piano; Danton Boller: bass; Alvin Queen: drums.