More than a bit of word play, the title of trombonist/composer Wayne Wallace’s revelatory new CD Latin Jazz/Jazz Latin represents the cyclical sensibility that animates his music. Every tune reflects the inexorable flow of rhythmic currents between Caribbean and African-American communities, a diaspora communion responsible for unprecedented creative ferment. An invaluable creative catalyst on the Bay Area music scene since the 1970s, the five-time Grammy Award nominee is revered as an educator, player, arranger, and producer with his label, Patois Records. Due out on June 4, 2013, Latin Jazz/Jazz Latin, is Wallace’s seventh Patois release, and the album displays all of the thrilling interplay, melodic invention, and blazing improvisational flights that distinguishes his music.
Rather than the work of impersonal forces, the Latin jazz/jazz Latin connection that Wallace celebrates depends upon the generational transmission of essential aesthetic truths, reflected here so beautifully by the presence of 77-year-old percussion patriarch Pete Escovedo and 17-year-old rising flute star Elena Pinderhughes. The album is built upon Wallace’s superlative rhythm section featuring pianist Murray Low, bassist David Belove, percussion maestro Michael Spiro and drummer/ percussionist Colin Douglas. With the exception of Douglas, who takes over for the late, beloved drummer Paul van Wageningen, it’s the same cast that joined Wallace on all of his previous Patois releases. What’s different is that he’s exploring a distinctive Cuban sonic palette with an emphasis on flutes and violins instead of hard-charging brass (though horn players get plenty of space too).
Featuring violin heavyweights Mads Tolling, who earned two Grammy Awards for his work with Turtle Island Quartet, Tregar Otton, and Jeremy Cohen (a multiple Grammy Award nominee with his celebrated Quartet San Francisco), and flutists Mary Fettig and Elena Pinderhughes, Latin Jazz/Jazz Latin explores the wide conservatory-honed streak that’s shaped Cuban music since the emergence of danzón in the 19th century.
The idea of bringing the flutes to the foreground, space they rarely occupy in jazz but where they continue to shine in popular Cuban ensembles, first occurred to Wallace via a commission he received from San Francisco’s De Young Museum and Intersection for the Arts to write a chamber jazz piece. He developed some music incorporating flutes and violins into his working quintet and “the response was phenomenal,” he says. “I knew we had something that people could relate to without even knowing what it was. The sonorities of the flute and violin takes the band to a different place, with softer dynamics and a whole new range of textures.”
In many ways the album reflects the enduring inspiration Wallace gathered over several trips to Cuba in the 1990s, experiences that opened up numerous other doors to Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and beyond. “Cuba’s influence was so pervasive, I was able to see how it resonated and it got me into music and culture of other countries. It was a foundation for me, a bottomless well you can keep going back to studying. This album is another facet of that experience, as I was blown away by the Havana Symphony, by how hard they swung. With their European classical education, Cubans really appreciate flutes and violins, which have been at the center of so much of their popular music.”
The album opens with Wallace’s “¡A Ti Te Gusta!” a tune that beautifully balances traditional charanga instrumentation with a contemporary songo groove. The piece offers the new voices a chance to stretch out, particularly Pinderhughes, the Berkeley High standout who is already working regularly around the Bay Area.
Always an imaginative arranger, Wallace transforms several jazz standards with new rhythmic settings, such as the Ellingtonian classics “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” which combines a righteous blues shuffle with a forceful 6/8 Afro-Cuban Abakua beat that comes directly from southern Nigeria, and a version of “Prelude To A Kiss” that he transforms into an elegant danzón (with a touch of soaring bolero). Coltrane’s infamous harmonic steeplechase “Giant Steps” turns into a buoyant carnival rave up that culminates with a stirring tenor solo by Masura Koga, another rising force on the Bay Area scene. Just as audacious is Wallace’s bomba-ized version of Monk’s “I Mean You,” which sounds like it was written for the surging Afro- Puerto Rican groove.
While Wallace’s beautiful, highly expressive trombone work is featured throughout, he designed the album to showcase Bay Area treasures. On “La Habana,” Pete Escovedo steps out on timbales, while the jazz/Latin workout “Melambo” is dedicated to reed expert Melecio Magdaluyo. The album closes with “Pasando El Tiempo,” a piece featuring veteran flutist Mary Fettig that highlights the inextricable bond between Afro-Cuban rhythms, swing, and the dance floor.
“We all come out of dance tradition,” Wallace says. “When I was studying under Juan Formell and Chucho Valdés, they emphasized dancing as an integral part of Afro-Cuban music. Ellington and Armstrong came out of dance. That’s where we came from, and I like honoring that.”
Wallace’s integral role in the Bay Area’s Latin music scene is front and center on a new two-CD compilation iSalsa de La Bahia!, which is due out on Patois on August 6, 2013. The album developed out of Rita Hargraves’ documentary The Last Mambo, a film due on Patois in early 2014 in which Wallace plays a central role as musical advisor. Tracing the scene’s development from Cal Tjader and the Escovedo Brothers, the film and album feature signature Bay Area artists such as John Santos’s Machete Ensemble, Edgardo Cambon’s Candela, Jesus Diaz y QBA, and Anthony Blea.
It’s difficult to overstate Wallace’s role on the Bay Area scene. In a career spanning four decades, the musically multilingual San Francisco native has collaborated with a dazzling array of artists as a composer, arranger, first-call freelancer and studio ace, including Count Basie, Ray Charles, Joe Henderson, Carlos Santana, Lionel Hampton, Earth Wind & Fire, Sonny Rollins, Aretha Franklin, Tito Puente, Lena Horne, Stevie Wonder, John Lee Hooker, Earl “Fatha” Hines and cellist Jean Jeanrenaud. He was a driving creative force behind some of the era’s most creative ensembles, including the Machete Ensemble, and Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra.
One of his generation’s most eloquent trombonists, he’s been named in DownBeat polls as a leading force on the horn. Known to many as “The Doctor” for his production skills, Wallace is also a lauded composer and educator (his own teachers included Julian Priester, Bobby Hutcherson, and Will Sudmeier at Havana’s La Escuela Nacional). In recent years he’s poured a good deal of his creative energy into Patois Records, creating a rapidly growing catalog of acclaimed CDs, starting with 2006’s straight-ahead tour de force Dedications and the pan-Caribbean manifesto The Reckless Search for Beauty. Latin Jazz/Jazz Latin is the latest step on a creative journey that continues to reveal startling beautiful musical terrain, territory explored by few other artists.