Bay Area saxophonist Ron Stallings made a huge impact upon the broad San Francisco music scene, spending several decades contributing high-level musicality to Latin Jazz and beyond. Born in Houston, Texas in 1947, Stallings moved to San Francisco at the age of 8; right away, the city’s diverse musical environment inspired him and opened his eyes to numerous musical possibilities. The 1960s and 1970s found Stallings acting as a featured soloist with many of the Bay Area’s famous rock and pop acts, playing sax, flute, and sometimes singing. Stallings appears on Mike Bloomfield’s It’s Not Killing Me, Tom Fogerty’s Zephyr National, Jesse Colin Young’s Songbird, and Otis Rush’s Right Place, Wrong Time. He performed live with many more notable rock artists, including Jerry Garcia, Elvin Bishop, and Boz Scaggs, maintaining a busy and invigorating schedule. During the 1980s, he led the Monday night blues house band at Slim’s, and over the next two decades, he continued to work with artists such as Huey Lewis, Gladys Knight and Merl Saunders. Stallings consistently maintained a reputation as a first call musician on many fronts, working as a desired sideman on recordings and performances.
In 1997 Stallings traveled to Cuba and returned with a new found passion for Latin music that would strongly influence the later half of his career. While in Cuba, he experienced a different perspective on music, hearing many of the island’s top groups and listening to lectures by artists such as Juan Formell and Chucho Valdes. Stallings recognized the potential in the Bay Area’s thriving Latin music scene and immediately found ways to become deeply involved. He soon joined John Santos’ Machete Ensemble, working as a saxophonist in the group and contributing to several of the band’s important recordings. At the same time, he collaborated with pianist Mark Levine and organized Que Calor, a Latin Jazz group with some of the area’s finest supporting musicians. The band recorded one album, Keeper Of The Flame, and continued to perform live sporadically over the next ten years. When the Machete Ensemble ended its tenure as Latin Jazz innovators, Stallings continued to work with the group’s individual members, recording on albums by Machete alumni Wayne Wallace and John Calloway. In 2009, Stallings released his last recording, Dia Real, a venture into Brazilian Jazz with a group called Tanaora. Stallings jumped into the Bay Area’s Latin music scene with a passion and became a major member of the community.
Stallings’ death from cancer on Monday April 13th leaves a gap in the Bay Area Latin Jazz world, and without a doubt, it is one loss that will be remembered in this community. A number of musicians that performed with Stallings during his time on the Bay Area scene will be holding a benefit concert this Sunday April 26th at La Peña Cultural Center to honor Stallings’ memory and raise funds to offset his medical expenses. Some of the musicians scheduled to perform include John Santos, Wayne Wallace, John Calloway, Mark Levine, David Belove, Jeff Cressman, and many more. It should be an outstanding musical event and a great cause – if you’re in the Bay Area, please come out and support the memory of this fantastic musician! Full details are HERE.
A Tribute To Ron Stallings
WHERE: La Peña Cultural Center
3105 Shattuck Ave
TIME: 7:30 p.m.
I’ve briefly highlighted some great Latin Jazz albums below that feature Stallings. If you’re not familiar with his work, check them out – you’ll be glad that you did. Take the opportunity to listen to his wonderful musicality and honor his memory!
Keeper Of The Flame – Que Calor
During Stallings study trip to Cuba that inspired his love for Latin Jazz, he traveled with another icon of Bay Area music, pianist Mark Levine – who also returned with a new passion for Latin music. Levine had years of experience in the Latin Jazz world, working as the pianist for vibraphonist Cal Tjader, so the two veteran musicians were quickly able to pull together a top-notch Latin Jazz group, which became Que Calor. Their only album, Keeper Of The Flame, includes original compositions and a number of jazz standards interpreted through creative arrangements. Tension streams through pedal tones, fiery improvisations, and a driving bomba groove on the group’s version of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Isn’t This My Sound Around Me?” Stallings provides soothing English lyrics over a cha cha cha on “Havana,” his own composition that remembers his inspirational trip to Cuba. A syncopated melody floats over a colorful montuno on Levine’s “Keeper of the Flame,” creating an addictive groove that pushes the group into a dizzying inertia. Each track resonates with a creative drive, a professional attitude, and an enthusiastic love for the music, grounded by the shared vision of Stallings and Levine. As co-leader of the group, Stallings had a huge artistic impact upon the creative process and this album provides the best insight into his overall concept of Latin Jazz.
Machetazo!: 10 Years on the Edge – John Santos & The Machete Ensemble
By the time that Stallings joined John Santos & The Machete Ensemble, the group had established itself as important players on the Bay Area Latin Jazz scene. Machetazo!: 10 Years on the Edge reflects upon band’s history with tracks recorded with various configurations from 1991 – 1997. Stallings shares sax duties with Melecio Magdaluyo on several tracks, doubling on tenor, soprano, and flute. The group displays a solid foundation in folkloric Afro-Cuban music throughout the album, with creative arrangements of traditional tunes such as “Eshú Laroye” and “Changó Pachanga.” There’s a historically rooted connection to jazz as well, which the group highlights on superb interpretations of the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” Santos contributes several original pieces to the album as well, including “Sueño de la Mision,” “Free At Last,” and “Caribeño.” It’s an outstanding collection that clearly shows the group’s artistic integrity and the level of importance that they held in maintaining the Bay Area’s Latin Jazz scene. Machetazo!: 10 Years on the Edge also contains several tracks that show Stallings playing in top form, displaying his newfound passion for Afro-Cuban music.
Mambo Jazz – Bobby Matos & John Santos
This West Coast Latin Jazz summit brought together two of the top bandleaders from Northern and South California, combining members of their respective ensembles into an inspiring supergroup. At this point, Stallings was an established member of Santos’ Machete Ensemble, making him an ideal representative for this larger ensemble. Much of the album delivers interesting percussion arrangements and the use of several different rhythmic styles, but a good number of tracks feature Stallings and the other wind players. “Caminando” begins with a chaotic free improvisation and then explodes into a full-blown rumba descarga with plenty of space for the wind players to trade ideas. There’s a contemporary songo feel on “Nueva Diana” allowing for a funky melody and extensive fiery solos from Stallings and the wind section. An ebullient montuno anchors the descarga on “Ya Se Ve” as Stallings trades improvisatory licks with a moving melody. The album represents an overall essential meeting of the West Coast’s best Latin Jazz musicians at the turn of the century, and Stallings stands firmly in the mix.
The Code – John Calloway
The Code is flautist John Calloway’s recognition of the unspoken language shared by musicians that have played together for several years – an important component of the San Francisco Latin Jazz scene and a language spoken by Stallings. Most of the album features Calloway’s stunning writing and musicianship, but Stallings stands out as a vital presence. Stallings delivers more than his usual saxophone genius on this album though – he introduces the album highlight track “Asokere” with an original poem about the Santeria deity Ellegua on “Light Upon A Path.” As the group delves into a free improvisation, Stallings’ deep voice adds a tone of seriousness, balancing the playful spirit of the gospel-tinged vocals on “Asokere.” Calloway pays tribute to Stallings on a smart and funky composition, “El Ron De Ron.” Melecio Magdaluyo provides the saxophone magic here, blowing fiercely on bari sax, but Stallings remains in the mix in spirit. Calloway captures the spirit of community found strongly in the Bay Area Latin Jazz community on The Code, a place that housed Stallings’ creative soul for many years.
Dia Real – Tanaora
Stallings leaped into the Latin Jazz world based on his inspiring trip to Cuba, but his love for Latin Jazz didn’t end on the island. One of his last recorded projects brought together some of the Bay Area’s top musicians into Tanaora, a group primarily focused upon Brazilian Jazz. Cecilia Englehart’s vocals add a commercial tinge to many of the tracks, while the harmonic ingenuity of pianist Bob Karty and bassist David Belove and Stallings’ improvisatory flights keep the album grounded in jazz. Englehart’s percussive scatting and the contemporary samba groove underneath “Rollon” inspire some fantastic playing from Stallings and a Tania Maria influenced sound. There’s a funky smooth jazz feel combined with an underlying samba on “Love Understands,” giving Stallings a chance to play off Englehart’s sultry English lyrics. A few tracks integrate Cuban rhythms – “The Katanga Patrol” rides on an upbeat son montuno and “Bonita” maintains a steady cha cha cha – but the majority of the album stays focused upon Brazilian rhythms, providing an opportunity to hear Stallings in a different Latin setting.
Don’t forget to check out the Tribute to Ron Stallings Sunday April 26th at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California. You can get the information HERE.
For more Stallings listening, you can check out:
Infinity, Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet
Vagabundeo/Wanderings, Alexa Weber Morales
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Album of the Week: Perspectiva Fragmentada, The John Santos Quintet
Album of the Week: Azucar De Amor, Kat Parra
Spotlight: Sonando Vuelos, Anna Estrada
Spotlight: Viajando Choro e Jazz, Grupo Falso Baiano