All Things Close Enough

Some of today's best jazz strikes purists as not sounding like jazz at all


Listening to jazz albums these days can be like surfing the Web, what with all the links to external styles. On Bennie Wallace's live Disorder at the Border, the links to jazz tradition are internal. Wallace's honoree is Coleman Hawkins, whose 1939 recording of "Body and Soul" epitomizes jazz's own classical period. A jukebox hit with a suave tenor saxophonist pouring his heart into a pretty song, it was also an early example of a great improviser abstracting a familiar melody into a harmonic palimpsest—a signpost to bebop. Wisely choosing not to compete with Hawkins at his own game, Wallace adheres to the original chord changes even during a jabbing cadenza—the modernizing touches are in his leaping intervals, and in arranger Anthony Wilson's dissonant countervoicings.

One reason Hawkins's 2004 centennial passed without many tributes is that he was defined by his swashbuckling arpeggios rather than by a body of compositions. The trick to honoring him is capturing something of his improvisatory thrust, which you'd think might involve orchestrating his most famous solos as backing riffs. I don't hear much of that on Disorder at the Border, though an especially intricate saxophone unison following Terell Stafford's jolting trumpet choruses on "Bean and the Boys" seems a likely exception. Even so, Wilson's arrangements pack their own punch in emphasizing Hawkins's ties to bebop, and Wallace channels the patriarch at will just by slowing his vibrato and dropping into a subtone—like on "La Rosita," where he and trombonist Ray Anderson circle each other as nimbly warily as Hawkins and Ben Webster on their 1957 Verve recording of this woozy 1920s tango.

Uri Caine's not just playing his record collection
Robert Lewis
Uri Caine's not just playing his record collection

Details

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Hawkins's star in the firmament is secure with or without tributes, but this one is valuable for casting Wallace in a new light. When Wallace broke on the scene in the late '70s, no one in that polarized era knew quite what to make of a saxophonist with one ear in tradition and the other in the vanguard. As a consequence, he was often likened to Archie Shepp, who was then backing away from the avant-garde and playing ballads that emphasized his lineage to past tenor giants. But the notion that Wallace was getting his Hawkins via Shepp seemed dubious even then. Disorder at the Border confirms he was going straight to the source all along.

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