Trombonist Wayne Wallace racking up Grammy nods with distinctive record label

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Usually when a musician starts a record label, it's with no intent beyond releasing his own music. Not so with San Francisco-based trombonist Wayne Wallace. Since forming Patois Records (Motto: "Promoting improvisation") more than a decade ago, Wallace has used the label as a vehicle to promote both his own Latin jazz work and music of fellow free spirits performing everything from salsa to big-band jazz. Along the way, the label has picked up a handful of Grammy nominations, including a 2016 nod for Canto America, a collaboration with percussionist (and fellow Indiana University instructor) Michael Spiro and a 35-piece orchestra that smoothly encircles a broad swath of Latin music tradition.

Initially an in-demand R&B player, with credits including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, Latin jazz became Wallace's passion once he started soaking up the music behind California percussion masters such as John Santos and Pete Escovedo. He's gone on to become a well-recognized master of numerous tropical styles, as well as an accomplished arranger, composer and educator.

All About Jazz: What made you want to run a real record label and have a diverse roster of artists?

Wayne Wallace: Looking back at it, I thought it was possible to make it work. The Bay Area had a lot to offer musically. I didn't want to serve a niche type of market, but a lot of the artists didn't fit into what the system was at that time... If you went to Tower Records, everything had to be in a certain slot. I saw that with Machete Ensemble, with Pete Escovedo's band —they just didn't fit the categories. So I thought that if we simply put the records out with kind of a (do-it-yourself) vibe, people would have a chance to hear what they were missing.

It became kind of collective, so to speak. We set a precedent that the artists would retain the masters, and we would help them with publicity and promotion, but we wouldn't make any money until they recouped their original investment.

AAJ: So part of the idea from the start was to treat artists the way you'd like to be treated by a record label?

WW: Yeah, that's a good way of looking at it.

AAJ: You've ended up with a very diverse roster. How do you chose the artists you work with?

WW: I don't actively go out seeking people. But when people come to me, I look for artistic integrity in what they do and what they're striving for. And a like-minded sensibility. A lot of these folks are ready to produce their own records, but I have my own vision and aesthetic. So we sit down and work it out and find a happy middle ground after talking over all the possibilities of what a record could be.

AAJ: Does it help having the experience you do as an arranger, producer and everything else—you can tell pretty quickly if someone's got it or not?

WW: Yes, it does make a difference. It's a game-changer.

AAJ: How much of a difference do the Grammy nominations make?

WW: Good question. It's difficult to quantify exactly what it means, but it does give you credibility, some cachet, and it gives you entry to some avenues that might no have been open to you otherwise.

AAJ: It must be especially gratifying to get Grammy recognition (nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album) for an album like Canto America, which obviously took a lot of work and imagination.

WW: I'm so proud of Canto America and how well it's been perceived. Because we were taking a big risk in making that record. It wasn't a traditional "Latin jazz" record. So for people—listeners, professionals from different areas...classical musicians, jazz musicians, folkloric musicians—they've all commented on the record with glowing reviews.

We had a lot of ideas, but we didn't want to make a record so intellectual, so over-the-top that a regular listener couldn't get it. Yet we didn't pander to anyone. I think we found, with a lot of hard work, a good balance between the two extremes.

And the Grammy nomination is fabulous, especially with the other really fine records out there. I think this release is...not genre-defining, but part of conversation in the overall Latin music world.

AAJ: Going back to the beginning, what made you choose the trombone starting out? It's not a particularly forgiving instrument.

WW: It was a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing because it only had one moving part. It wasn't until later that I realized that's one of the reasons it's so damn hard. And then as I went through high school, the arrangements kept getting harder, so it was like "Oh, I really have to learn to control this thing."

AAJ: What made you stick with it?

WW: Once you start to adapt to the trombone, it really grows on you. I had great teachers and a lot of good musicians around me who helped me technically get things happening, so I could express what I wanted to on the instrument.

AAJ: You did your education and then pretty quickly had a busy career playing in R&B bands. What made you want to put that aside for jazz?

WW: R&B bands are great—there's a synergy that happens with the dancing and the singing and a really great song. But the lack of improvisation really limits you. You just don't get as many chances to express yourself. I was always looking for something where you could still create that synergy with the audience but also have room to improvise. Even just to change the arrangements on stage. I found Latin jazz and salsa allowed me that. You can reshape lines on the spot, change arrangements—it's pretty cool.

AAJ: What was your entry into Latin jazz?

WW: I think when Pete Escovedo asked me to sub for his trombone player back in 1970. And as soon as that happened and other people saw I could play this music, I started getting asked to play with other bands.

AAJ: Was it tough to pick up the different kind of rhythms?

WW: Oh yeah. There's a whole cultural ethos effect; if you don't grow up hearing it, you have to do a lot of homework to wrap your arms around it.

AAJ: You've been to Cuba a number of times. Now that relations with Cuba are normalizing, are you concerned that will change the music scene there?

WW: I've been afraid of that since 2000. That's why I'm so glad I went in the 1990s. I was able to experience the real roots of the music before it got overly commercialized. Commercialism just tends to degrade the culture.

I was very blessed. In my life, I've always had good timing, whether planned or things just happen serendipitously. I was so lucky to be there when I was and meet Chucho Valdes and all these different people who were the real fathers of what popular Cuban music is.

AAJ: Every jazz musician seems to come up with own mix to make a career out of it. You teach, you do a lot of arranging—how easy is it to go back and forth between the different roles?

WW: It's not easy. I'm a teacher at Indiana University, so going back and forth between academia, arranging for people, recording and performing—it can be a handful sometimes. To where it tends to be overload on some level.

AAJ: You spent many years playing in the background. What was it like to step out front as a band leader?

WW: I had done a lot of writing and what I wanted to express with my writing—{{m: Art Blakey} is a perfect example —I could write differently for what I wanted to do, as opposed to working with all the other bands. And I could hear some of the other styles I had been working on—more jazzy, similar to the blues—and see where the intersections of those streams lie. It's taken a while, but I think Canto America is a full-blown manifestation of all those years, for myself as well as for Michael Spiro, of working as sidemen in other people's bands.

AAJ: So it's not just a matter of chops but developing that kind of communication?

WW: Communication, and I think there's this real talent to being able to conceptualize what you want to do with the music and the larger artistic statement you want to make. Everybody at a certain point learns that there's always going to be gigs, but the problem with being a sideman is that you're always waiting for the phone to ring and all of that. You have to go forward and make your own identity and your own brand, which can help make more gigs.

What I'm seeing now is that we all have to do that. Everybody I know does something on the educational level. Everybody needs to find a good mix of roles. It's kind of like a stock portfolio—you have a focus, but you're also diversified. As a musician, you have a main gig, but you create other opportunities. And all that goes double the more of an improviser you are.

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