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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.

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