So much has been made of Wallace Roney’s studies with Miles Davis that it’s easy to forget his first breakthrough: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, where he succeeded Terence Blanchard (and Wynton Marsalis) on trumpet. Yes, Roney was a dyed-in-the-wool Young Lion. Understanding, a sextet session and his first all-acoustic album in over a decade, places him back in that context, with (mostly) wondrous results.
Understanding could have been released in 1983 and largely fit in with the then-zeitgeist. Technical virtuosity, dense harmony and zealous swing abound. At its best, melody abounds too. The title track, a Roy Brooks composition, is the highlight, opening on a simple theme that inspires Roney and tenor saxophonist Ben Solomon to bright, declarative solos with just a hint of poignancy underneath. McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace” and Duke Pearson’s “Gaslight” feature alto saxophonist Arnold Lee, whose gruff tone at times approaches David S. Ware levels of coarseness, but always in the service of lush melody and hefty rhythm.
Alas, when the sextet plays original tunes, they also evince the ’80s Young Lions’ great weakness: the forsaking of good melody for complex chord changes. Solomon’s “Kotra” is the worst offender, a swinging but shapeless tune with even more shapeless solos. Lee’s “Red Lantern” is better, Roney’s blues “Combustible” better still—more or less a single bebop lick repeated over a I-IV-V. But only bassist Daryl Johns’ solo is both on point and on budget; pianist Victor Gould and Sullivan go on too long, and Roney loses a sense of purpose. Fortunately, these are the only three originals to five outstanding covers.
(Understanding has one running flaw: Drummer Kush Abadey is too high in the mix. Abadey is fantastic, with a window-rattling kick that recalls Elvin Jones, but there’s no need for him to nearly drown out the horns.)