Bennie Wallace is a splendid tenor sax player. He has an extensive discography going back to 1978, which is when he released his first album under his own name. Today, thirty-seven years and twenty-some albums later, the Chattanooga, Tennessee native’s name is, unfortunately, still not exactly a household word even among jazz aficionados. Which is a shame, because you would be hard-pressed to find a better tenor sax blower.
Wallace was born on November 18, 1946. His first musical instrument was a clarinet, which he began playing at the tender age of 12. When he was 13 he began playing jazz in his school band. At 19 he was playing in his first real jazz club in Chattanooga, an after hours club called Amvets.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee with a major in clarinet, Wallace followed the siren call to New York City, mecca for most young jazz boys of the era. While in New York he played with Monty Alexander and Sheila Jordan, and formed a trio with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Eddie Moore.
It was Gomez and Moore who played with him for his first album, the 1978 ENJA release “The Fourteen Bar Blues.” The album was well-received by the jazz world, and Wallace went on to release no less than six more albums on that label before moving on.
Over the years he has recorded with many of the leading lights of the jazz world, including: Chick Corea, Tommy Flanagan, Dr. John, Dave Holland, Elvin Jones, blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, Alvin Queen, and others. Wallace has worked extensively in film, composing music for such movies as “Bull Durham”, “White Men Can’t Jump”, and the Paul Newman film, “Blaze”.
For this review, I want to tell you about an album from the middle years of Wallace’s career, his 1987 release on the Denon label, “The Art Of The Saxophone.”
For this, his 12th album, Wallace lined up an impressive group of artists to back him. They were:
Bennie Wallace, tenor sax
Harold Ashby, tenor sax (track 8)
Jerry Bergonzi, tenor sax (tracks 1, 5, 7)
Lew Tabackin, tenor sax (track 2)
Oliver Lake, alto sax (tracks 3, 6, 9)
John Scofield, guitar
Eddie Gomes, bass
Dannie Richmond, drums
“The Art Of The Saxophone” consists of nine songs, no fewer than six of which Wallace wrote. That includes the opening song, “Edith Head,” presumably referring to the legendary Hollywood costume designer of the same name. While the provenance of the title may be in question, there is absolutely no question about the music itself. “Edith Head” is one of those songs that hits the ground running from the first note. Wallace and Bergonzi do a nice bit of back and forth. There are some inventive bits here and there that jazz purists may frown on, but they only add to the party-like atmosphere of the song.
Jumping ahead to track four, “Monroe County Moon”, we find a completely different ambiance. Whereas “Edith Head” was a road race, “Monroe County Moon” is a quiet ballad with more than a hint of blues. Wallace’s earlier work is noted for crossing over to the blues side of the street now and then, and this is a perfect example of the blending of the two cousin genres. Guitarist John Scofield is particularly restrained, and his work gives the song just the right touch.
Moving on, we find the cleverly named “Chester Leaps In”, meant no doubt to be an homage to “Lester Leaps In”. The similarity ends with the names, although “Chester” is a great straight bop number. Purists may not like Scofield’s electric guitar, but I thought his solo was a high point of the song.
“Prelude To A Kiss”, written by Duke Ellington, Irving Gordon and Irving Mills for the 1992 film of the same name, is another quiet little melody. It is also Harold Ashby’s only appearance on the album. Everyone gets a nice solo, and the song is definitely a mellow miracle of musical magic. (Whew. Sorry about that! Heh.)
The album closes with another lively number from Wallace’s fertile imagination, “Price Charles”. This one moves right along at a nice clip, which seems more than a little surprising since it is undoubtedly named after a member of the British royal family who is known more for his support of quackery in the form of alternative medicines than he is for liveliness. Still, it’s a great song and I think you’ll like it.
All in all, I have to say that I am certain you will find “The Art Of The Saxophone” from Bennie Wallace to be a worthy addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
To find out more about Bennie Wallace and his music, here are a few places to check out. First there is his web site, which actually is maintained by someone else. Allmusic.com has a short bio of him by Scott Yanow. In November of 2013, Ted Pankin published an article online that he had written about Wallace for Downbeat, plus three interviews with Wallace.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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