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Homage and Acknowledgment: A Conversation with Wallace Roney

AAJ Staff By

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I tribute Miles every time I pick up my horn. And it's true I play in his conception but I have my own identity.
From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in September 2001.

The following conversation took place in Wallace Roney's room at Wyndham Hotel in downtown Montreal on Sunday, July 8th 2001, the day after he performed Miles and Miles: A Musical Journey, his tribute commemorating both the seventy-fifth anniversary of Miles' birth and the tenth anniversary of his death.1 Myriam Achard, Montreal Jazz Fest's lovely press agent, escorted me to his door.

As we came in, a woman was gathering her recording kit, having just finished interviewing him for CBC Radio. Having been an avid reader of comic books myself, I couldn't help but notice the latest issues of Batman, Superman, and the likes, lying on one of the twin beds.

"Are those for you or for your kids?," I asked Roney, intrigued.

"For me," he replied instantly.

"Oh, so you're a comic-book fan just like Wayne Shorter," I observed.

"Wayne doesn't know anything about comics," bragged Roney, with tongue in cheek. "I've been instructing him on what to read for years now."

Obviously, the jazzman was in a cheerful mood, and justifiably so. His show from the night before had gathered mostly positive reviews in the local press, again justifiably so. His all-star band—featuring alumnus from a variety of Miles' combos—had played two outstanding sets celebrating the spirit of Miles, during the course of which Roney had had plenty of space to flex his prodigious trumpet chops and prove anyone lending a discerning ear that he wasn't the copycat his detractors still swore he was. Sure, the Miles influence was audible, but Roney has spent the better part of the last twenty years perfecting a style that combines Davis' legendary cool phrasing with a bravura, staccato attack worthy of Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown and early idol Lee Morgan.

Soon enough, Myriam Achard and the journalist from the CBC left the room. So I had half an hour to spend with Roney, who'd been one of my favorite musicians ever since his days with the Tony Williams group from the mid-to-late eighties. There would be many other times to talk about comic books, I guessed. For the moment, I'd rather discuss his career, his music, and the shadow of his mentor that still haunted him.

All About Jazz: For a while, after Warner Bros. canceled your contract, it became difficult for fans living outside the U.S. to keep track of what you were up to. So what happened to you between the release of Village and that of No Room For Argument?

Wallace Roney: Well, first of all, they didn't cancel my contract. Maybe my ego is making me say this but what happened was that there was a disagreement. I felt that Warner was not trying to do me right. I saw them pushing other people and not even put one advertisement for my records in the magazines. They made no effort to promote my music. I'll say it over and over again, there was something very odd about it. There was even a story about it in Downbeat, about why Warner was doing that. The record I just did was supposed to be Village. But Warner felt it was too much, they wanted it watered-down. So they asked me to do some standards and that's why I had some classics on the disc. And my tunes, you know, with the keyboards and all of that, they didn't want that, they had me water it down. So if you listen to my new record, everything I wrote at the time about what Village was, applied. But the record afterward, I wanted to do an anthology. I wanted to use Herbie [Hancock] and Buster [Williams] and Wayne [Shorter]. The company wouldn't have that, because they had in-house people they wanted to push. At that point, I said: "You're not trying to look out for me, you people have other agendas." That's how the contract got canceled.

AAJ: Tell me about your relationship with Gary Bartz, who was playing with you yesterday evening. Is he now a permanent member of your working band?

WR: Well, I love Gary. I've been playing with him ever since I came to New York. He joined my band last year because he's got that something I always wanted my saxophone players to have in their playing. And I was telling them—my brother Antoine and another guy I had with me, named Steve Hall—but they weren't getting it. It's a certain kind of lift, a rhythmic thing that Gary has, a certain kind of passion. Actually, Antoine has passion, but it wasn't just that. So I said: "I know what I'm gonna do, I'll hire Gary to play beside you so you can see and hear what I'm talking about." And Gary agreed to do the gig. Now my brother wasn't playing on yesterday's gig because it was a Miles Tribute. But generally, I play with both Gary and Antoine. As for Steve Hall, I let him go partly because he wasn't getting what I was trying to show him.

AAJ: What about Bennie Maupin, who was also with you for this Miles Tribute?

WR: For years, every time I went to California, I always played with Bennie. I love him for all this great music he did with Herbie way back. He would sit in with us. Imagine having Buster [Williams] and him, two sixths of Mwandishi with me: it was a natural! Antoine was playing the bass clarinet, you know, but Bennie plays the bass clarinet! Bennie brings up that magic element.

AAJ: I guess you probably must be sick of having to answer this question over and over again, but I still have to ask you anyway: don't you ever get tired of doing all these tributes to Miles Davis instead of playing your own music?

WR: Yeah, I do. And no, I don't get asked this question often enough. I do get tired of promoters using Miles' name as a trick to lure the public. You see, I tribute Miles every time I pick up my horn. And it's true I play in his conception but I have my own identity, these things I took from other players that I liked and put all together. I think Miles liked me for the way I'm trying to play and he would like me to take his innovations and do what I hear. But a lot of people just want to do the tribute and every time they hire me they want to put that up there. It bothers me because they're trying to capitalize on Miles and not present my music. Mind you, I don't feel that way about this tribute because this is Miles' seventy-fifth anniversary and the tenth anniversary of his death.

AAJ: Also, today would have been the tenth anniversary of the Gil Evans Memorial concert in Montreux where you two played together under the baton of Quincy Jones...

WR: No, actually that gig was on July 2nd...

AAJ: Are you sure? I seem to recall it was July 8th 1991? Since you should know better than I, I guess I'll have to check.2 Anyway, you were saying...

WR: Well, you understand what I'm saying. This time, it's special. But I wouldn't want to seem to be constantly capitalizing on Miles' name. Just trust I am always paying tribute to him.

AAJ: You had the opportunity to learn your craft with some of the best trumpet players in modern jazz: Miles, Woody Shaw, Clark Terry, even Dizzy. Now that you're an established player, do young cats ever come up to you and ask for your tutelage?

WR: You know, they do sometimes. But I'm at this stage of my life where I'm playing all the time. And I don't really have time to counsel them. I know, at some point, my mentors didn't always have that time either. What I did with Miles was to just hang with him. We didn't practice together or anything. I was the protege. I just did whatever he asked me and took in every information he passed on to me. That was my privilege, since he did like my playing. Still, I'm at a different point in my life than Miles and Dizzy and Clark were when I met them.

AAJ: But didn't you use to go to Woody Shaw's place for some wood-shedding (no pun intended)?

WR: Yeah, with Woody it was kind of different. By the time I met Woody, I was sixteen years old and I could already play most of his stuff, and I was trying to play some early Miles and some Clifford Brown. And I think he was trying to chase Clifford Brown too. I was taking a lot from him but so was he. In a sense, we were feeding off each other. But I was definitely getting more.

AAJ: Your last record shows you delving more into a sort of jazz-funk? Why this change? I recall reading in your liner notes for the Wallace Roney Quintet CD that you didn't feel attracted to this kind of music, as opposed to Steve Coleman or Graham Haynes.

WR: Yeah, and I still don't. I don't play like that. If you hear backbeats, that just the drummer point. He chooses to play those. I try to encourage him not to play them. But I mean backbeats have been in the music anyway for a while. Art Blakey used to play them and so did Elvin [Jones] and Tony [Williams]. And so my backbeat point of view was and still is from Tony Williams' Lifetime, and not from a funk background. It's funk only in the sense of what Horace Silver and those cats were trying to do before it became commercial. I still feel the same way. And when you have Lenny White... Well, that's his choice, not mine. Sometimes, I'd rather hear what the music would sound like if he would, you know, lift his hands up before playing the backbeat. We'd still be playing the same groove but in a more open manner. (Almost in a whisper, Roney adds:) Like Tony used to do.

AAJ: You seem to miss Tony Williams very much...

WR: Oh, I miss Tony a lot. Tony Williams was the most incredible drummer, he really was. And the day everybody stops fighting and realizes that Tony Williams embodied the art of drumming, the art of music in fact, and not just drumming, the music will go further, on a more visionary path.

AAJ: In an interview somewhere you once said your favorite jazz albums were Miles' Filles de Kilimanjaro and Coltrane's A Love Supreme. And your admiration for these albums shines through "Homage and Acknowledgement," the medley of "Filles de Kilimanjaro" and of the first movement from Coltrane's suite you arranged for your latest CD. Why are those two records so important to you?

WR: See, we were talking about the backbeats. On Filles de Kilimanjaro, there are moments where they are playing backbeats (like for instance on "Frelon Brun," the opening track) but can you hear how open it is? To me, that was a point where they were stretching out and still swinging. They didn't have to play 4/4 but they did if they wanted to; they played the groove and didn't have to play backbeat but they did if they wanted to. The music was so open. But once they got to that point, the band broke up. After that, they all had different visions of where they thought it was going, like Herbie's band, and Tony's, and even early Weather Report. But, man, the five of them together right on this record! And if they'd stayed together and did the next record: wow! So my vision comes from there. And on A Love Supreme, that spiritual passion was Trane's. To me, those two records are what music is all about.

AAJ: Through the years, we've heard you play in pop-music contexts—backing Michael McDonald or Joni Mitchell, either live or on records. Did you find these experiences brought something new to your playing or were they just jobs?

WR: No, these were not just jobs, of course. Yet those experiences don't bring anything to me as much as I bring to them. In those cases, these people's music was open enough, and maybe my playing was devoid of restrictions enough, that I was able to play on their music the way I would have played on mine. Which to me is a true validation of what you're doing right: to be able to play the way I play and fit in with Michael Jackson or Prince and still do something worthwhile.

AAJ: In this program of tunes from the Miles Davis repertoire that your band played last night, you added one of your own compositions ("Virtual Chocolate Cherry"). Why this piece in particular?

WR: Well, I thought it was in the spirit. I thought it meant something.

AAJ: You know, this sounds a lot like a Prince tune ("Dance Music Sex Romance" from the album 1999)...

WR: Yeah, I guess so. But only for the first part though. Afterward, we go elsewhere with our improvisations. Of course, Miles had played some songs by Prince, whom he liked very much.

AAJ: How about you? Do you like Prince's music?

WR: Well, some of it. I think Miles liked Prince's music so much because it was current. Miles was always open to everything that was current.

AAJ: He even went as far as to compare Prince to Duke Ellington, which infuriated Wynton Marsalis...

WR: I can understand why it infuriated Wynton. But at the same time, I realize why Miles said it. Because in his heydays, Duke Ellington was popular. Although Ellington was making arty music, he was also making dance music, popular sophisticated dance music. In the forties, jazz became more intellectual. But in the twenties and thirties, jazz was the popular, current music people danced to. And that's what Prince today stands for in a sense. You know, I was supposed to go and sit in with his band the other night. Problem is, I laid down for a nap around six... and I was so exhausted I didn't wake up until midnight!

AAJ: Did you hear Roy Hargrove came onstage and jammed with Prince's band?

WR: Really? Roy did? I didn't know that. [After a pause:] Was he any good?

I would have loved to pursue this conversation, but my half hour was coming to its end. Wallace Roney and I still managed to chat a few minutes more, about the people he'd known and enjoyed playing with (for instance, Elvin Jones), about the Turandot project he'd recorded with the Bob Belden Orchestra for EMI-Toshiba that was alas never released outside Japan ("Originally, Bob wanted to do Tosca with me but it never worked out.") and, of course, about comic books: the best place to find them in Montreal, which one to buy. But, I soon had to leave so Roney could pack up his things. Later that afternoon, he would catch his plane to Europe to join Herbie Hancock's touring band for a few gigs. Fortunately, the stellar trumpeter had enough comics in his bags for the whole six-hour flight.

Suggested listening

Wallace Roney, Mistérios (Warner, 1994). On his Teo Macero-produced debut on Warner, Roney tackles Brazilian melodies and tunes by Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, the Beatles and Dolly Parton, backed by a quintet with his brother Antoine and his wife Geri Allen, plus woodwind and strings sections a la Clifford Brown with strings. One of the few contemporary albums of jazz combo + orchestra that actually works.

Wallace Roney, The Wallace Roney Quintet (Warner, 1996). Roney's first true working band on a fiery free-bop set that evokes Miles' Second Quintet rhythmic inventiveness.

Wallace Roney, According to Mr. Roney (32 Records, 1997). A two-CD reissue of some of Roney's best sessions ("Intuition," "Seth Air" and excerpts from Verses, his very fist effort) recorded for the now-defunct Muse label, selected by the man himself and featuring such stellar sidemen as Tony Williams, Kenny Garrett, Gary Thomas, Cindy Blackman, Mulgrew Miller and Jacky Terrasson.

Wallace Roney, Village (Warner, 1997). Roney's last and finest outing on Warner, mixing the Filles de Kilimanjaro concept with African percussions and early Weather Report intensity. Guest-starring, along-side the leader's regular combo, Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Pharoah Sanders and Robert Irving III.

Wallace Roney, No Room for Argument (Stretch, 2000). On his latest recordings, Roney takes the "Kilimanjaro + African rhythms and chants" formula a little further, throwing in some Prince-like funk and vocal samples from Malcolm X and Luther King in the mix. His most ambitious and uncompromising record to date.

Also recommended, with Wallace Roney as a sideman:

Miles Davis, Miles and Quincy in Montreux (Warner, 1993). For his swan song in Montreux, the Prince of Darkness had enlisted his pupil and saxophonist Kenny Garrett to help him pay tribute to the legendary arrangements the late Gil Evans had penned for him, backed by a fifty-piece orchestra under Quincy Jones' direction.

Tony Williams, Tokyo Live (Blue Note, 1992). After years of playing together in the studio and on stage, Tony Williams' band finally recorded this live set before enthusiastic and receptive Japanese audiences. Superb playing from everyone, fueled by the untamable leader's drumming.

Tricia Tahara, Secrets (Savant, 1998). How appropriate this title is, for singer Tricia Tahara is apparently one of the jazz scene best kept secrets. Produced by Roney and accomplice Lenny White, this set has her singing Hancock's "Butterfly" as well as her own compositions, backed by Roney's working band. Well worth hearing, notably for "Altra Notte In Fondo Al Mare" (an aria from Boito's Mephistopheles), where free-bop meets opera with astonishing results.

Notes

1 Miles and Miles: A Musical Journey, presented at Theatre Maisonneuve for the 22nd Edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival on July 7th 2001, featured Wallace Roney (trumpet, leader), Gary Bartz (tenor, soprano saxophones), Bennie Maupin (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Patrice Rushen (piano, keyboards), Adam Holzman (keyboards), Buster Williams (bass) and Lenny White (drums).

2 Since this conversation, I did check and it seems Wallace Roney's memory was faulty, not mine: the Montreux concert took place on July 8th, 1991.

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