Album Of The Week: ¡Bien Bien!, The Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet

by chip on September 25, 2009

¡Bien Bien!
The Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet
Patois Records

Some Latin Jazz artists that sustain long careers travel through bumps and detours during their lives, while others simply get better with age. This eventual outcome can’t be seen early – some artists hit their artistic stride at the beginning of their careers, while others take years to develop an artistic identity. Regardless of the quality in their early work, it’s the future paths that a musician travels that establish their legacy. Musicians simply can’t play the same thing through their lives and so a continuous musical output requires some searching and experimentation. An astute artist makes changes to their musical approaches and incorporates new elements into their style, resulting in more interesting music. Other times, musicians back up into a more classic approach that contrasts their established style. As the artist moves forward, they either experience a jagged series of successes and failures or they consistently improve upon their given concepts. Both career paths supply a big chunk of the artist’s identity, and either direction can be workable. In reality though, the artist that simply continues to increase the quality of their work becomes an ideal musical figure with an enviable body of work that appeals to a wide public audience. Bay Area trombonist, composer, and arranger Wayne Wallace continues his assent into an untouchable level of quality, delivering an outstanding set of classic Latin Jazz with his Quintet on ¡Bien Bien!.

A Unified Group Sound On Original Compositions
Wallace and his group deliver a unified group sound full of personality on a series of original compositions. Wallace improvises briefly over pianist Murray Low’s driving montuno on “¡Bien Bien!” until a thick harmonized collection of trombones present a memorable melody. A quick statement from Wallace leads into Low’s extended improvisation, which comes alive through his keen sense of melodic development. The rhythm section leaps into an aggressive vamp, providing the foundation for an exciting improvisation from drummer Paul van Wageningen, who winds percussive ideas through sharp horn hits. Low, Wallace, and bassist David Belove establish a syncopated ostinato on “Mojito Café” which builds steadily towards Wallace’s strong theme. Percussionist Michael Spiro riffs over a timba-fueled montuno until the band quiets behind Low’s smartly constructed and engaging piano solo. The rhythm section jumps back into the timba feel behind van Wageningen, building momentum into Wallace’s bold improvisation that cuts through the rhythm section with power and ease. Wallace introduces the cha cha cha groove on “Playa Negra” with a confident pick-up that sets the tone for the whole piece. A percussive figure sends Wallace flying into his improvisation, an ear catching statement that benefits from his ability to spontaneously construct solid melodies around the clave. Low continues the rhythmic emphasis in his improvisation before falling into a steady montuno while Spiro develops a tasteful conga statement. Wallace’s compositions suite his group well, and they come alive here, responding enthusiastically to the inspiring structures and space for personal expression.

Drawing Inspiration From Guest Artists
Wallace draws inspiration from a variety of guest artists that diversify the album’s sound and push the band to new heights. A trombone with a wah wah mute winds around the classic melody on Duke Ellington’s “Going Up! (Subete!)” adding color and personality to the straight-ahead melody. Low blazes through a fiery improvisation, before charging into a powerful montuno behind a rhythmic solo from trombonist Julian Priester. A short interlude sends the band racing into a ferocious groove as Wallace and trombonist Dave Martell trade an exciting series of ideas and Belove plays through a short improvisation. The triple trombone attack of Wallace, Priester, and Martell provides a rich sonority to the melody on Memo Acevedo’s “Building Bridges,” delivering a harmonized call and response. Priester’s mellow tone takes center stage with a rhythmic improvisation before a quick interlude introduces Martell’s bolder tone and slightly understated phrasing. An explosive unison break sends the band screaming into a fiery montuno while Wallace lets loose with a no-holds-barred improvisation. Wallace, Low, and Belove place a staggering vamp over a Puerto Rican bomba groove on Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” leading into a few quick pregones from vocalist Orlando Torriente amid a strong coro. Vocalist Kenny Washington presents the traditional vocalese version of the melody with some rhythmic tweaks, bringing a striking contrast between the two vocalists into the forefront. Wallace improvises over the familiar structure with the comfort of a bi-lingual musician, moving into an attention grabbing scat solo from Washington. Wallace integrates his guest artists with skill and professionalism, highlighting their individual skills and encouraging them to push the band.

Playing Upon His Group’s Strengths Through Creative Arrangements
Wallace selects the remaining material from a wide variety of jazz standards, creating original arrangements that showcase his group’s strengths. Low’s addictively propulsive montuno sends the band sailing into a tight arrangement of Sonny Rollins’ classic blues melody on “Solid.” Wallace eats up the blues changes with a nimble creativity, spinning a long stream of cleverly variated bop infused lines. The band lowers its dynamic behind Low, who uses a combination of blues licks and modern ideas to build back into the original montuno while Spiro leaps into an explosive statement. An intimate small group setting with Wallace, Low, and Belove creates an understated beauty on Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” until the percussionists subtly add a bolero beneath the group. Wallace thoughtfully constructs a gentle statement that radiates with character, due to his unique phrasing and muted inflections. Low improvises reflectively, playing off the rhythm section’s implied swing, leading into a melodically rich and rhythmically moving double bass solo from Belove. Spiro’s bata drums engage Wallace in an open conversation before van Waginengin drives the band forward with a raucous swing on John Coltrane’s “Africa,” a tribute to the late Bay Area saxophonist Ron Stallings. Low glides over the swing rhythms with a lush layer of chords that recall the distinctly modern sound of McCoy Tyner. The group bursts into a rumba guaguagnco as Wallace improvises feverishly, incorporating blazing chains of notes, screaming high notes, and creative articulations. Wallace incorporates these standards intelligently into his repertoire, providing ample opportunities for his musicians to create dramatic statements over familiar structures.

Maintaining A Journey Into Higher Levels Of Artistry
Wallace and his Quintet build upon their combined experience on ¡Bien Bien! to present one of the finest recordings in Wallace’s career. Wallace’s career has taken him through many roles – work as a sideman with many great jazz artists, a ground-breaking contribution to the development of a Bay Area Latin Jazz sound with The Machete Ensemble, and a string of releases as a band leader. In every setting, his performances, compositions, and arrangements resonated with quality. Wallace takes things to a new level here with a combination of his established skills and some new approaches. The creative arrangements and compositions that have been the cornerstone of Wallace’s sound remain, but there’s also an overall looser feel that allows for some fantastic solo statements. Wallace serves as the primary soloist, and he is simply on fire. He holds a serious set of chops and a defined musicality that walks with grace and ease between traditional jazz improvisation and hard-core clave phrasing. Low adds a significant presence to the recording, constantly pushing the band with furious montunos, and countering Wallace’s style with another clearly defined voice. Belove, Spiro, and van Wageningen insert a solid foundation at every turn, fueling the rhythms with an authentic knowledge and nudging soloists with smart interaction. The inclusion of several guest musicians supports Wallace’s overall sound, integrating diverse ideas into the mix. ¡Bien Bien! finds Wallace hitting a musical milestone as a bandleader, maintaining a journey into higher levels of artistry that seems destined to continue.

Check Out These Related Posts:
Latin Jazz Photo Album: Wayne Wallace
5 Albums That Remember Bay Area Latin Jazz Saxophonist Ron Stallings (1947 – 2009)
Album of the Week: Infinity, The Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet
Patois Records: Documenting The Bay Area Latin Jazz Sound

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