Wallace Roney: In the Realm of Anti-Gravity

R.J. DeLuke By

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Much is made of trumpeter Wallace Roney coming from the Miles Davis school, a mentor-protégé situation that blossomed in the 1980s that Roney is very proud of. But that wouldn't be telling the whole story of the Philadelphia native who, in his prime years, has become one of the world's finest trumpet players, and a musician whose quest for innovation is everlasting.

Hearing jazz music around the house as a small child, it crept into his head and stayed there.

"People couldn't understand a young kid really loving the music that way because everybody else was liking R&B and figuring that's what you're supposed to like," Roney says. "That's the stuff that the common black experience was. Which is great. It was more that jazz took a special ear. It took a special kind of temperament and understanding and knowledge. If you understood jazz, it put you higher. On a different plateau than your next-door neighbor, and girls wearing hot pants and you just wanted to dance."

It was always music for Roney, taking lessons at a very young age, then being more informed on his instrument by childhood associations with legends Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie. He listened to all the great trumpet players. Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell, and so many more. Roney was accepted into the fold by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. He's played with Joe Henderson, Art Blakey and Cedar Walton. The trumpeter was part of a fantastic band headed by drumming icon Tony Williams, which included his great friend, the tremendous pianist Mulgrew Miller, sadly recently departed.

"Man, he was fiery. He was creative. He was impressionistic. He was everything, man. He was something else," Roney says of Williams. "And he was a virtuoso. The definition of virtuoso probably goes Charlie Parker, Tony Williams, John Coltrane. This guy could do anything on the drums he wanted to do. Anything. He said he'd just look at the drums and come up with stuff to do. And it wouldn't be showy. It'd just be amazing. It took the music to another place. He would play something in a creative space, or leave a space. And you would say: Wow. It would push me to want to do that on the trumpet. To be that innovative."

And I lived there," he says, reflecting back on those moments like they'd just occurred. "My whole life became—and is to this moment—living in that realm of anti-gravity. Like stepping on a meteor. Will it go down or will it go up. If you figure that out, you can go step on the next one."

And of course there was Miles, an idol. Miles the mentor. And also Miles, the man who summoned Roney for a meeting, albeit brief, after first hearing him play. Not the other way around.

Understanding A band leader on his own terms for many years now, Roney's always concerned with the next musical adventure. The next exciting moment that will take the music somewhere different. It might not happen every night. But it's out there if you're going for it. Roney consistently goes for it, and his new band of young firebrands is no different, as his album Understanding (HighNote, 2013) attests. It's a hard-driving, exploring and open jazz record. Many tunes are covers, but not standards. They have a shape different than the source, an approach sculpted by the trumpeter. The youngsters behind him—Arnold Lee and Ben Solomon on saxophones, Victor Gould or Eden Ladin on piano, Daryl Johnson on bass and Kush Abadey on drums—tear it up. Cats in their 20s, though Solomon is only 19.

"As far as it being a young band, my band has pretty much always been a young band, after I broke up a band with Lenny White and Buster Williams and Gary Bartz. That was a great band. But after a while these younger cats started wanting to come and play too. These guys, they don't have any hangups," says Roney. "Buster didn't either, by the way. Buster was always ready to go to the unknown. But now you got young guys that are ready to go to the unknown. I like that."

Roney is as frank and honest as the music he plays, and like his solos rolling into the air, twisting and turning, his stories about situations and fellow musicians do the same; entertaining and focused. While he is more introverted than a lot of musicians, his statements aren't guarded. He's forthright and natural.

"The unknown means to stretch your ability," he explains. "Say Art Tatum has technique like this. You can try to dare to equal what Art Tatum did, but put it in a modern context, not the way he did it. Or what John Coltrane did with Charlie Parker. Trane took Bird's ideas further. But the only way you do it is you have to go through it to have it. You don't just wake up one day and say, 'I'm going to play the saxophone.' or 'I'm going to play like Miles Davis.' You have to understand how to develop a sound. Why do these lines make sense? Once you understand that, then have the audacity to see if you can take it further. Blend it with something else."

His current musicians are on that mission, he feels.

They do light a fire, particularly Abadey on the drums, cooking, dropping bombs, switching gears but not losing place. Whether cooking on Duke Pearson's "Is That So" and Roney's "Combustible," or floating through the McCoy Tyner ballad "You Taught My heart to Sing," this band is exciting. Tyner's "Song for Peace," is superb, both serene and majestic in Roney's rich trumpet statements, and dangerous with Solomon's intense sax solo. Solomon's "Kotra" seems like it could fit on Miles Smiles.

"My band just keep evolving. People, fortunately, like some of the things we're trying. They feel they want to play with the band and consequently play with me," says Roney. "The guy I'm on the lookout for is one that has no hangups about trying to be as creative as he can be... Some people's creativity is to ignore some of the great things that happened. Mine is to be able to have all the great things in your back pocket, or as your language, then see if you can take it further. You have something to work with. A lot of guys come to me and see there's a chance for them to try to do things they weren't allowed to do in other situations."

The group hasn't played together that long, but became a band quickly. Roney says with glee, "They were hounding me. 'Can I bring a tune in? I got something for the band.' I'm like: Hold on. Slow down. They didn't slow down. They were like: We're ready. I was like, 'You want to be a band? Y'all are ready all ready?' So Ben [Solomon] brought out a tune and Arnold [Lee] brought a tune. Everybody wanted to bring out their tunes. They started sounding really good. I shaped those things to take on another kind of life. Instead of the way they originally intended it."

He says the title cut, by drummer Roy Brooks, "I knew from when I was a kid. I knew Roy. He was a beautiful cat. Complex guy. This song 'Understanding' just made sense to me. I always wanted to do it to honor Roy. It reminds me of when I first turned on the radio on my own. I think that song was the first thing that came on. I've been listening to jazz radio since I was a kid, all my life. My father turned it on and I loved it. It wasn't like he turned it on and I had to hear it. When my mother and father broke up and there's a period of adjustment and you find out who you are. I was 10 years old and I wanted to reclaim my sanity. I found a radio and I said, 'Man, I don't want to listen to that rock and roll crap. Where is the jazz station?' I switched around and looked for the jazz station, at that time it was WRTI in Philadelphia."

Roney is rightly proud of his band and glows when he says, "Nobody else can really play like these guys; the combination of things I put together in assembling those guys. When I first heard Ben, he really was going into Trane's space. Not Trane's space from being another person. Not Trane's space and this one part of it. He wanted to go all the way in and see how he'd come out of it. And I loved it. And then you have Kush, he was going all the way into Tony's [Williams] space. He's trying to. That's a hard one. Well, Trane is even harder. But Kush is going in there and understanding Trane and Elvin Jones. I told him remember Art Blakey and Max [Roach]. So he put all that stuff together in that kind of way. And Victor is up there playing everything from Nat Cole to [Thelonious] Monk to Herbie [Hancock]... Then I'm floating up on top with my stuff that I got from Miles and the things that I liked and it all comes together. Everybody is of like mind at that point. I insist everybody listen to everything and everyone."

He adds, pointedly, "Those are young men with fertile energy. They have the chops that everyone is scared of. It's called creativity... That's where I live."

The band sounds better the more it plays, he says, but the problem is getting gigs. Unfortunately, that is a common problem.

"The problem is getting people to trust. To bring these kids out to play. When we get out to play, people seem to feel what they're trying to express. But the club owners, they just want names that they recognize, which is a drag. You try to fight this thing, but it's hard. But I'm fighting it. I ain't stopping. That's the only way the music can grow. Then you look up and those are the cats with the names," he says. "You want the rest of the road to be smooth, so you can contribute. But are you kidding me? How I've been able to stay relevant is a blessing."

Relevant, indeed. Roney, whom Shorter has called "a musical astronaut," is one of the outstanding creators in the business. He started playing the trumpet at the age of seven and never got sidetracked. He had formal instruction from teachers. "I just loved it. You pick up and instrument; you can't play it. How are you gonna learn? If you love it as much as I loved it, you want to get good, so you start studying. At eight years old, I was trying to go through my books as fast as I can so I can sound like I want to hear. I doesn't work like that, but it gives you the blueprint of discipline."
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