Bennie Wallace: Someone to Watch Over Me

A taste for Wallace’s quirky style is easy to acquire from this encounter with pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Yoron Israel. Wallace brings his tenor saxophone eccentricity to eight songs by George Gershwin. His identifying characteristics are a chesty tone and a use of interval leaps that call to mind both the joyful iconoclasm of Eric Dolphy and the loping Sonny Rollins of the late ’50s. His improvisation in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” summons up the image of a cowhand whooping and hollering on a bucking horse. If that picture does not square with Gershwin’s elegance, it should be noted that however rambunctious his blowing choruses, Wallace plays the melodies with respect. Both aspects are emphasized in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” with its gleeful statement of the melody and Wallace’s honks, cries and hortatory runs. He approaches “Someone to Watch Over Me” with judicious melodic embroidery clearly inspired by Ben Webster. Miller’s attentive accompaniment makes the performance a full duo collaboration. “How Long Has This Been Going On,” with the full quartet, is another Webster-ish ballad performance by Wallace, with a lyrical solo by Miller.

Miller’s harmonic adventurism is a match, at least, for Wallace’s. His solo on “I Was Doing All Right” is full of risk-taking and humor. His free introduction to “Who Cares” is a highlight of the album. Washington and the increasingly impressive Israel, partners in time, are finely attuned to one another and to Wallace and Miller. Washington, one of the finest trio bassists at work today, has solid solos on “Who Cares” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Israel’s Art Blakey triplets and snare accents behind Wallace on “Nice Work If You Can Get It” are great fun. This is an album to smile along with.