How Wallace Roney Taught His Young Ensemble to ‘Trust the Music’


On Blue DawnBlue Nights, trumpeter Wallace Roney convenes a new generation of players and grants them room to explore.

(Photo: Gulnara Khamatova)

Without overhauling his sound, trumpeter Wallace Roney’s music remains fresh, and his latest disc, Blue DawnBlue Nights evidences its quintessential vivacity.

Some of his new HighNote disc’s capricious energy can be attributed to the intergenerational nature of the ensemble. For instance, Roney’s 15-year-old nephew, Kojo Odu Roney, played drums on “Bookendz” alongside veteran drummer Lenny White, who has an established history with the trumpeter. “Lenny definitely had the experience of what I wanted to bring to this particular song,” Roney explained. “Kojo had the youthful energy going for him.”

Apart from their energy, a benefit to Roney performing and recording with younger musicians is their eagerness to learn. With almost all his ensembles, the bandleader steadfastly has tried to assimilate many of the interactive group concepts he learned from playing with Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and, perhaps most significantly, Miles Davis. “It’s about having a balance,” Roney said. “Younger musicians are sometimes more willing to try stuff than older musicians. Sometimes, the older musicians aren’t willing to go further into certain musical concepts that they’ve already mastered. But it’s great when you have older musicians who have mastered certain concepts in your band to play with younger musicians who don’t quite understand the concepts yet.”

18-year-old saxophonist Emilio Modeste, who contributed to the album, also saw the process as a learning experience.

“Wallace taught us how to trust the music,” Modeste said. “By submitting to the music and trusting it, it allowed everyone in the band to express themselves and contribute in more meaningful ways.”

In addition to showcasing their improvisational acumen, Roney allowed his ensemble to function as a platform for pianist Oscar Williams II and Modeste to express themselves compositionally. The former contributed the probing, midtempo “In A Dark Room” on which the frontline horns articulate a questing melody atop an undulating pulse. Modeste added two compositions—the blistering “Venus Rising,” which features Roney at his most aggressive, and the devilish “Elliptical” on which the horns ride a propulsion that alternates between 4/4 swing and 6/8 West African groove.

And while Roney hates being thought of as a mentor, he workshopped all three compositions with the two younger players. “I introduced certain techniques that they never knew of,” Roney said. “Things like how to take a phrase and elongate it to make the melody sound more natural.”

Modeste explained that on “Elliptical,” Roney helped reshape the composition by employing 6/8 time and making it more pronounced: “Wallace threw in rhythms that allowed for more contrast. He also spaced out the melody more, allowing it to breathe, changed the way we approached it. We were able to paint more freely with a very similar structure and the same chords.”

That said, Roney isn’t necessarily inclined to talk much about the intricacies of his compositions or his conceptual goals. He’ll mention some of the rhythmic modulations that Tony Williams played with Miles during the mid-’60s, but that’s just perhaps one element he’s assimilated into his work during a four-decade career. “I really don’t like talking about the shop part of my music,” he said. “I really just want people to listen to the music, instead of just analyzing it. At the end of the day, I just like my music to sound good.”

Blue Dawn–Blue Nights undoubtedly sounds good. Whether Roney is slyly dropping funk riffs on the makeover of White’s “Wolfbane,” finding emotional gravity in pop tunes on Toto’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” (the original featured Miles) or evoking late-night sensuality on his reading of Kaye Lawrence Dunham and Bryce Rhode’s “Why Should There Be Stars,” his warm trumpet tone, assured improvisational agility and simmering accord with the rest of the ensemble consistently are marvelous.

Throughout much of his career, Roney has unfairly taken more than his share of hits for upholding Miles’ legacy. Sure, there’s that vibrato-less tone and mysterious allure in his balladry. They even almost share the same birthday. But detractors also need to consider that Roney could be considered Miles’ successor; someone who actually studied and shared the stage with Miles toward the end of his life.

Miles told me to stop listening to critics who said that I was a clone of his,” Roney recalled. “He said, ‘I know what you’re trying to do. You keep doing what you’re doing. Because if you don’t, and [you] listen to them, they will be playing you, instead of you playing your instrument.’”

Roney’s also amassed a pretty significant fanbase, including some well-regarded musicians: “I don’t think Wallace gets enough credit for being someone who has kept the legacy and the direction of the straightahead jazz pure and top-shelf,” argued White. “There are a lot of people who get the glamour. But for someone who’s stayed true to their convictions? It’s Wallace. I haven’t seen or heard Wallace do things in his music just because they were cool and more contemporary. He’s as authentic as he can be.”

The kind of conviction White perceives, though, might be more about Roney’s internal desires than nefarious outside forces.

“For me, it’s more about the way of playing and the understanding of the music without cheating its integrity,” Roney posited. “I try to explore all the avenues in my music and make spiritual connections inside it. I’m trying to do more than just play notes. I’m trying to make the notes evoke something within the listener.” DB

Correction: The title of Roney’s latest album was misidentified in the story. DownBeat regrets the error.

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