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Wallace Roney: Fulfilling the Promise

By Published: November 28, 2005
AAJ: It's not free improvisation; these are tunes, but the tunes are not straightjackets. They're structures for human beings to embody.

WR: Well, when we approach it, we approach it totally from a free point. We're reacting. We're reacting to what we just announced musically.

AAJ: On the CD, "Mystikal follows your version of Wayne Shorter's "Atlantis and I think the two work well together. There's a restlessness and sweetness to them both—a spiritual quality. "Atlantis is all layered sound: there's Fender Rhodes and, I think, Clavinet—it has that Stevie Wonder sound.

WR: Herbie. Herbie was before Stevie.

AAJ: Well, Herbie Hancock was before everyone when it comes to all that gear, wasn't he? There's also acoustic piano, in any case. I think these layered keys are a real trademark of your sound. "Shadow Dance from Prototype has a similar layered blend of keyboards. Tell me what you like of that kind of recorded blend of electric keyboards and piano.

WR: Well, your focus is the piano. But the piano doesn't have everything. But it has enough to inspire everything. But then you've got an actual Clavinet or an electric piano to warm it up a little bit, to make it shimmer like a jewel. You're using the keyboards as an extension of the piano instead of as a pop sound.

AAJ: Speaking of "Shadow Dance, to me there's something accordion-like in its head with that harmonized blend of you, Antoine Roney and Don Byron.

WR: Well, don't think there's anything wrong with that. I don't know if that's what we were going for. It doesn't matter. I think what matters is what it conjures up in people's heads—your head or anyone else's. Just the fact that it can conjure up something is a blessing.

AAJ: Another thing about that layered sound is that these instruments appear and disappear on one track. On your cover of "Just My Imagination, for example—there's this beautiful interplay between you and Geri Allen's piano. She accompanies you to the point where it's really a sort of duet, and then she plays a solo that, because of the way the record's mixed, seems to turn into a Fender Rhodes—the acoustic piano's gone and in its place is the Rhodes. Do you think about this when you're arranging? Do you say, "I want the piano to be prominent here, and fade away here?

WR: I think she does. And I think that's why I asked her to be there: because she does think like that. Because I think like that, but I don't have to say much, because there are people there that are just really that expansive on their instruments.

AAJ: Val Jeanty is all over this record on turntables, whether she's playing vocal samples, cutting or just adding sounds to the overall blend. She was pretty prominent when I saw you live as well. You also worked with DJ Logic on the Prototype album, and I think you were working with turntablists way before you ever recorded with any.

WR: That's right, with Val.

AAJ: Tell me what turntables add to your music and what you like to hear from them: what sort of things you like them to play in your group.

WR: Turntablists are what's happening in pop music today, in pop culture. It's what people are hearing, and I always try to stay open to what they're hearing—what's being felt today. Because you can't help but be influenced by that; you walk down the street and you're hearing sounds. So she and Logic were very important. Val's the one on No Room For Argument as well.

AAJ: Right, she did the vocal samples that are on that record.

WR: Yeah, and the chants. We've got African chants on there; there's a lot of things going on there. With that one, she was a good way of vocalizing what we were trying to say musically; she was able to put in messages of spirituality, things that are relevant that are in our music. So as we're playing it, as you feel it, she feels it and expresses it that way through the turntable. She became an important aspect of what you're doing.

AAJ: Everything she's doing sounds so musical to me. Not to suggest turntablists aren't musicians—I think they are—but she's really good. She's always listening.

WR: Well, she's Haitian, and she's a drummer.

AAJ: "Stargaze is another great new tune. It's pretty funky, has a little of that old Chic "Good Times riff in it, and a typically searching Wallace Roney theme. I love how the rhythm section shifts and changes in it—it's not just straight groove. During your solo, the whole band, especially Matt, gets freer, gets away from that riff, and then things tighten up for Geri's piano break. Songs like feel like they'd be different every time you play them. Do your tunes always change in each night's performance?

WR: Yeah, yeah, they do shift and they do make different turns. That song has, again, another searching quality through the melody. And we got a rhythm going on with the bass playing this groove, and I got Eric almost playing an almost straight-ahead beat against it—you know, like "Papa Jo [Jones] playing on a sock cymbal [imitating the sound], "tett-a-ttuu, tett-a-ttuu, tet-a-ttuu. Only he doesn't go with the "tett-a-ttuu, he just does the last part, the "tttuu, ttuu, ta-ttuuu against the bass, and it's killin'! It sounds great! The thing that I do is I tell them that I don't care what we play. We're going to approach it from the best of what our music has. We must have interplay with each other. It must groove, or it must swing. Whatever. People say "swing, but I interpret "swing to mean it feels good, it grooves. That's no different from what funk players do when they're funky.

It's got to sound good. I don't even care if you're playing as free as you want. In terms of the rhythms, we've been given the lessons of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. And Max [Roach], Art Blakey, Roy [Haynes]—how you can be creative rhythmically. Then we as artists, as melodic players, must be as creative as we can. So that makes "Stargaze no different than playing "Nefertiti. We're playing off the groove, whatever it is, whether it's a straight-ahead groove, ostinato, an African groove—well, they're all African grooves anyway. African bass grooves.

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