Disorder at the Border
Though Wallace’s sumptuous tenor tone and breathiness on ballads are often attributed to Ben Webster, his surprising note choices and intervallic leaps can be directly traced back to Webster’s teacher, Coleman Hawkins, who is widely regarded as the father of all tenor saxophone players. Hawkins’ exuberant speech rhythms and unexpected phrasing, along with his liberated sense of extrapolating on familiar melodies, set a precedent for avant-garde pioneers like Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp, and a later generation of players including David Murray and Bennie Wallace. In this program of tunes associated with Hawkins, recorded live at the 2004 Berlin JazzFest, Wallace bears down in the setting of a swinging nonet with sparkling new arrangements by guitarist Anthony Wilson (who strangely doesn’t appear here). Solo standouts, aside from the audacious tenor man himself, include trumpeter Terell Stafford, who kills on a rousing “Bean and the Boys” (a proto-bop anthem from 1946 based on the tune “Lover Come Back to Me”), and trombonist Ray Anderson, who turns in a smooth, expressive solo on the 4/4 swing section of the exotic Latin-flavored “La Rosita.”
Wilson’s arrangements incorporate some slick, tight unison lines by the six horns, which include alto saxophonists Jesse Davis and Brad Leali and baritone saxophonist Adam Shroeder, who also shines on the burning “Bean and the Boys.” The swinging rhythm section is capably manned by pianist Donald Vega, wonderful bassist Danton Boller, who solos brilliantly on the title track, and Wallace’s longtime associate Alvin Queen on drums. Their take on Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose”—a tune recorded by Hawkins in 1937 during his expatriate period in Paris, where he collaborated with Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and fellow expatriate Benny Carter—coyly opens on a balladic note before giving way to some high-flying exchanges between the two alto players, Davis and Leali, and leading to another scorching solo by bari player Schroeder. And while Wallace’s liberated sense of phrasing and quirky intervallic leaps in the heat of improvisation can be almost comical at times, his rhapsodic interpretation of Coleman’s landmark, “Body and Soul,” is a highly personal expression of rare beauty that culminates in an extended dramatic cadenza full of probing harmonic flourishes and implied polyphony. Wilson’s gorgeous reharmonizations of the theme here greatly augment the inherent beauty of this timeless ballad.
The collection closes on a rousing note with an exhilarating take on the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” highlighted by some raucous, braying plunger work by trombonist Anderson and culminating with a tumultuous free-jazz breakdown between Queen and Wallace. A great showcase for the idiosyncratic, rambunctiously swinging, free-spirited tenor man, and a real triumph for arranger Wilson.