Bennie Wallace: The Nearness of You

Robert R. Calder

Bennie Wallace

The Nearness of You

Label: Enja
US Release Date: 2004-01-27
UK Release Date: Available as import

The pianist in the trio which opened an amazing concert -- much of which is preserved on CD (Stan Getz, Yours and Mine and on Soul Eyes on Concord) -- made the audience wonder. What else could Getz do? It was Kenny Barron. Scott LaFaro is credited with having pioneered a new role for the bassist in trio with piano and drums -- creating the trio with Bill Evans and Paul Motian which existed as a stylistic composition after the bassist's tragic death. Some critics have claimed that when Eddie Gomez took over the bass role, the music got even better. I think it stayed as good, but with an altered accent, Gomez's greatness is the point. On the present set, the tenor saxophone virtuosity of Bennie Wallace is moving around in what the great blues singer Cleo Gibson called a Rolls Royal.

The opener of this set of 1930s-1950s ballads. "Come Rain or Come Shine" has Wallace coming in with his Ben Websterish sound, which he seems to approach from a tilted angle. His solo is oblique; he seems to be talking to himself, doodling or playing to himself, a little abstracted or introverted. On "Willow, Weep for Me", Wallace manages to sound a little like a 1940s and later blues session tenorist who has heard and liked Webster and is trying to attain the delicacy. The difference is that Wallace can manage it, though there is a plangency and feeling of underlying emotional cry -- which seems to evoke from Barron in solo a civilised performance of some funk licks. The later thinner-toned playing of Lucky Thompson, a great player out of Webster and Don Byas, is another reference for Wallace's playing, as indeed is Archie Shepp.

On "Crazy He Calls Me", Barron plays a sort of lyrical be-bop that reminds me of the longtime exile master Duke Jordan. On "Cocktails for Two", Wallace duets with a very light-toned Gomez (I suppose in emulation of a Charles Mingus routine which had roots in Spike Jones, but was initially funnier than Jones and livelier and poignant). "Why Was I Born?" really does begin very poignantly, with a Lester Young lyrical directness which doesn't survive the breathing out of a few Websterisms and goes into more the manner of Eric Dolphy, whom I would have thought a reference point for discussion of Wallace. After a superlative passage of what has to be described as Barron-Gomez symbiosis, the tenor's play-out is more Coleman Hawkins without the lower tonal weight.

"The Nearness of You", like what has gone before, reflects a great deal of the musical culture of the tenor saxophone, the big tone of Hawkins's disciples fined down to something flowing. Among the early famous and early departed, Chu Berry played (and was) a former alto player who found the tenor tone a novel, fresh exciting experience. Whether or not Wallace ever spent time with an alto, he gives the same impression of being excited. "I'm Old Fashioned" is another performance which brings to mind 1930s stylists, except that Wallace plays softly what would have been delivered with lots of breath and baritonal passion. He also musters a considerable turn of speed in passages, with an almost excessive fluency.

It is a formidable technical accomplishment to fill the horn with resonant breadth of tone while not filling the room with sheer volume. Wallace can afford to relax, and he does, letting his playing drift with the sure support of Barron's piano. Gomez ensures that "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" retains its impulsion with a multiple-time opening to his solo, and after a nice piano solo Barron -- over a sensitively prodding Gomez -- develops a one-man chamber orchestra setting behind Wallace, until the softness of the tenor overpowers everything with tenderness.

"Some Other Spring" opens with Barron, as at other times on this set, sounding more like Hank Jones, though Barron tends to rein back or bend back phrases Jones would let sing out. By now, Wallace is rather breathing into than blowing his horn, although there is an exceptional edginess when all three men are working hard together.

Henry Nemo's "'Tis Autumn" reminds me of the old Earl Hines vehicle "After All I've Been to You". It opens with solo Barron in a slow stride cum Teddy Wilson style, and Wallace makes the most of this number. Gomez comes in quietly swinging and Barron reins back prior to a tasteful display of bass virtuosity that has the pianist trying to play as quietly as possible. Wallace attains a magical gentleness at the end of his lengthy cadenza, and I find he has induced me to hold my breath.

This is a remarkably spontaneous set, the standout playing really from Gomez in all manner of supporting work, three men playing with as well as playing strong ballad themes, Wallace thinking a lot about the history of his instrument and stirring Barron to feel out other resources. Where performers of the Hawkins-Webster school characteristically drifted down to the lower register, deepened to a lion's purr and fluffy or breathy noises, Wallace even at his tonally most expansive stays with the higher harmonics of his instrument.

One of the classics of the Hawkins-Webster school discography is Ben Webster's performance of "Londonderry Air", which opens "O, Danny boy …" and has a second half with the ultimate tear-jerk in the phrase to which the words And come ye back … are sung. It is a tightrope of a tune for the jazz performer, and with the words maybe even too sentimental to be safely singable. It's hardly taken seriously. Webster, however, turns it into a thing of rare and breathy beauty, and this desire for something beautiful seems to be matched by Wallace's concern here somehow to produce the same sort of thing. He restrains his breath, holds back trying to let the beauty well up. Wallace is not so simple a man of music as Webster.

Years before Webster's classic performance, his junior by a couple of years Don Byas recorded the same tune as "London-Donnie", and that would blow even Webster away. To infuse that tune with intense passion was an achievement as great as any tenor player's on record. It's miles away from Wallace's fascinating new set, which is by comparison somewhat unfocussed. I really do like "'Tis Autumn" very much indeed, and the "Cocktails" duet makes me wish even Barron might have dropped out on a few more tracks, or played elsewhere more of the time in duet with Wallace. For overall musical quality, I would prefer Wallace's The Free Will, on the Enja label (1980), where Wallace and Gomez were joined by the now (woe! alas!) late Dannie Richmond and Tommy Flanagan (the latter blinding on "Sophisticated Lady", and Wallace really engaged -- and hear Gomez on Star Eyes!).

This is to judge the present rich ballad set by the highest standards. Given the personnel, why not?

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