Sunday, June 23, 2019

Wayne Wallace’s Inventions Reach beyond Latin

from the Web page for the recording being discussed

The beginning of this month saw the release of The Rhythm of Invention by the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet. Trombonist Wallace leads a rhythm section consisting of Murray Low on piano, David Belove on bass, and Colin Douglas and Michael Spiro on percussion. As on Wallace’s previous release, Canto América, resources have been extended to the scale of a chamber orchestra of winds, brass, and strings, along Akida Thomas narrating his own text in the title track, which also includes the recorded voice of Wallace’s colleague and mentor, David Baker.

While Latin is not my favorite genre, I continue to be impressed by the imaginative ways in which those skilled in the style can take innovative approaches to tunes appropriated from other genres, particularly those of past jazz traditions. I therefore have to confess that what drew me to this album was the track of Bix Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist.” Before the “digital age,” this used to be the Great White Whale of record collectors, since about the only version available was the original ten-inch 78 RPM single. The most-told story about this item was that anyone who possessed it dared not play it for fear of wearing down the content in the groove.

All of that iconic status dissolved once the Beiderbecke discography was digitized. My own source was The Complete Bix Beiderbecke in Chronological Order, a nine-CD collection released by I.R.D. Records based in Italy. Since I now had an artifact that I could play (rather than merely show off to others), I was particularly struck to discover that, while he was best known as a trumpeter, “In a Mist” was a solo piano performance by Beiderbecke. Furthermore, considering that the recording was made in October of 1927, it was far from any ordinary piano solo of the time. Indeed, it would not be out of the question to assert that some of the earliest rumblings of bebop can be found in “In a Mist.” As a result, I was not surprised to read Wallace’s claim that it took him eight years to figure out how to arrange the piece for his group.

Indeed, what impresses me most about Wallace is how much effort he puts into seeking out and then realizing so many diverse approaches to invention. Shaping a Latin feel for rhythm around the quintuple time signature for Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” would not have been an easy matter; but, as had been the case with “In a Mist,” Wallace figured out how to chart just the right path to frame Desmond’s off-beat tune in a setting of Latin rhythms. Even more impressive, however, was the track “So Softly.”

This is one of those ingenious exercises through which the listener is allowed to discover one tune lurking in another. Through her scat singing, Ella Fitzgerald disclosed how the harmonies of Morgan Lewis’ “How High the Moon” formed the backbone of Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” Charles Mingus let another genie out of the bottle when he revealed that the favorite bebop introduction to Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” was actually the opening four notes of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous C-sharp minor prelude, the second in his Opus 3 Morceaux de fantaisie collection. In a similar manner Wallace takes the introductory passage that Gil Evans wrote for Miles Davis’ tune “So What” on his Kind of Blue album and lets that introduction lead into Sigmund Romberg’s “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” calling the resulting track “So Softly.”

Where Wallace’s own Latin tunes are concerned, what is most interesting is how he keeps taking different approaches to extending his quintet with additional instruments. Wallace is a San Francisco native; and it is more than a little disappointing that, where pedagogy is concerned, we have lost him to the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Considering the wealth of innovative music-makers here in San Francisco, it is a pity that they cannot be guided by the “pole star” of Wallace’s combination of disciplined technique with a prodigious capacity for invention.

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