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Wallace Roney and His Mission to Record and Perform Wayne Shorter's Long-Lost "Universe"

R.J. DeLuke By

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It's like the Holy Grail of music that was written specifically for Miles and that band. —Wallace Roney
Wayne Shorter is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest composers in the history of jazz, which is the history of American music. His compositions are played by instrumentalists in cramped and crowded nightclubs wherever on earth jazz music is performed. It's hard to imagine a jazz festival where at least few of his works don't cascade upon the ears at some point. Vocalists have added lyrics to some of his songs so they, too, can get involved in their interpretation.

"He's an absolute jazz master, one of the greatest composers in jazz and, in my opinion, in modern music," says Joshua Redman, who has made his own mark as one of the finest saxophonists of his generation.

Shorter is prolific. He writes often and in different forms. He has pieces of music written many years ago that he occasionally gets back to and brings out in some fashion. "Finishes" isn't really a term he prefers. "When people say something is finished, that's like a consensus," he says, proudly. "That's just an opinion. 'That's the end of that song.' No. the song's just sitting there. That's not a law."

Lately, there is some special music sitting in Shorter's vault that is finding its way out, albeit slowly, to be finally heard. It's being done by the extraordinary trumpet player Wallace Roney, who obtained the music in 2012 from Shorter, his close friend. Until about a year ago, when Roney formed a band that played it in concert, all but one piece had never been performed before.

These are extended scores for 23 musicians, written around 1968 by Shorter specifically for Miles Davis to play with his great quintet of that time, Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams at the core.

"I've got to get it out there so people can hear it," says Roney. "It's like the Holy Grail of music that was written specifically for Miles and that band."

But Roney met resistance all throughout 2013 and is still baffled at the situation. His goal in 2014 is to get the music heard more live, and also get into a studio to document it "because the music demands it. That's important to be said. The music demands it. Not for any other goal except that the music demands to be recorded and put out there."

There are five extended pieces, "Legends," "Universe," "Twin Dragon," "Utopia" and "5/4." Roney struggled to get opportunities for the music to be played. He had some rehearsals, but no one was willing to book a performance. But in January of 2013 he finally got a chance to play publicly at a club called Drom in New York City. "Nobody got paid, because they weren't paying anything," says Roney. "It was a showcase. Everybody came out and there was a buzz all over the place for a moment. Because the music was that great," but nothing happened. A few months later, in a May conversation, Roney was still scratching his head. "I can't get nobody. Let me give you a capital N, capital O, capital B, capital O, capital D, capital Y. NOBODY. They're interested when they first hear. But I've gotten resistance so much it's incredible. You've got to be kidding me. No one wants to hear this? It's like when I was with VSOP and nobody would book us. It's the same thing."

Roney says the VSOP band that toured as a tribute to Davis in 1991' with Roney on trumpet along side Williams, Carter, Hancock and Shorter ("the greatest band I ever played in in my entire life. Period"), had trouble getting booked in the United States.

In July, Roney was able to get the music into the Jazz Standard in New York City. Trumpeter David Weiss conducted the orchestra, which contained flutes, French and English horns and bassoon, plus violin, clarinet and two bass clarinets along with standard instrumentation." Man, it levitated," he says in December. "It felt like the whole room was levitating. It was amazing. After they let us do it, they were supportive of us. They felt it as well."

Still, he notes "We've been having a hard time. People are passing on it. The record companies are passing on it. I haven't given up. I've dedicated [2014] to getting this music out there and performed... We're trying to get it into art houses and concert places. Even some prestigious clubs would be nice too."

There is one concert slated so far, January 9 at at the Poisson Rouge as part of Winter Jazzfest presents SummerStage/Charlie Parker Jazzfest Showcase.

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