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Wallace Roney: Fulfilling the Promise

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I think when people hear advanced artists like Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, or Tony Williams, or Max Roach, or Herbie--I think their ideas shouldn
Trumpeter Wallace Roney has been working in jazz for over thirty years. He made his recording debut at age fourteen and played in the bands of Tony Williams, Art Blakey, David Murray and Herbie Hancock—just to name a few. A bandleader on his own for many years, Roney has dazzling chops and has composed some classic songs. He's never led a bad group, and when I saw him at Chicago's Green Mill in late August, the band was dazzling—powerful but supple, densely layered but capable of immediate transition.

Roney's most famous mentor was, of course, Miles Davis. It can't be denied that Davis' work and example still color Roney's music. His mentoring has also been as much curse as blessing, having forced Roney to endure years of facile, simplistic comparisons to Miles. None of this should obscure the fact that Roney has a fine body of recorded work as a leader. In recent years—to some extent under the radar—he's produced a run of especially superlative recordings. 1996's Village was the end of his long assocition with Warner Bros., but his 2000 album No Room For Argument (Stretch Records) was, to these ears, his finest album to date; 2004's Prototype and the new Mystikal (both on HighNote Records) have continued Roney's streak of great CDs. I spoke with Roney about the new record, his bandmates (including wife Geri Allen and brother Antoine Roney), his ideas about jazz and life in general, and his struggles to make his music heard.

And yes, about Miles.

All About Jazz: Let's jump right into talking about your great new CD Mystikal. I love the playing of your bassist Matt Garrison and your drummer Eric Allen. They both also appear on your last album, Prototype. Tell me how you got involved with them and what you like about their playing.

Wallace Roney: Okay. I met Matt—first of all, you know Matt's the son of Jimmy Garrison—years ago. I was getting ready to open up at the Vanguard and he just came up to me and introduced himself. He said he would love to do some playing. That was 1994. And then in the year 2000, I did a gig with him; I played with Herbie Hancock and Herbie had Matt on bass. And when Matt started playing, I was just floored. Terri Lyne [Carrington] was the drummer, and I thought those two had a great, creative chemistry. But Matt—what I heard in Matt was a person with creativity and chops and a boldness that's rare among musicians. And that's on acoustic bass. When he plays electric bass, he's able to play the same things. I met Eric in 1976; we went to high school together. Even then, Eric was one of the best young drummers that was coming out. We had a chance to listen to a lot of music together, a lot of great musicians. Eric's actually been on the scene since 1981, but I think he was eclipsed by the media blitz on, you know, the other people. It had nothing to do with his playing; it's just the media focussed on whoever was playing with whoever they considered popular.

AAJ: So you did this new album in one day—actually, one day in May just a few months ago. It must be nice that HighNote could get this record out so quickly in a world where musicians often see their records released at least a year after they're recorded. Were these mostly first takes? Did you do a lot of takes of this material?

WR: These were mostly first takes. Yeah, I am happy that HighNote is able to do that. I've been through a lot of record companies and before, I didn't understand what [label head] Joe Fields' commitment to the music was. I see it now after being around other companies. I realize this cat is really serious; he'll do what he can to help make your record—you know, the record you're trying to do. In the beginning, when I was making records, I was in a different place than I am now.

AAJ: Let's talk about the title track of the CD, "Mystikal. I think it was of your best new compositions; it has a lovely, expansive theme that's been playing in my head for the last few weeks. You and your brother really cook on your solos, and I like how the six minutes of the tune pack so much emotion and drama. Tell me something about this song, how it was composed.

WR: Well, you know, it's funny—how things are composed is less important to me. What's more important is that it finally becomes a fruition and it's there. What I was trying to do was play something that had the embodiment of sweeping, soaring spirit; something that is tangible that can't be explained. That's what the word is. You're trying to make the music be the embodiment of what you're trying to say.

AAJ: A song like "Mystikal feels like it's exactly as written as it needs to be, meaning it has a framework and some melodic content, but it's not overwritten. I never hear composition overwhelm playing on your records.

WR: That's good; I'm hoping what you're saying is that the composition serves as inspiration to what we're going to play. So they become one.

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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