Wallace Roney's frustrating climb out of the pigeonhole

The old bromide that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery is trotted out most often to justify work that is distinguished by its lack of novelty. Invention of any type is such a personal thing that it almost carries its own creative DNA, so it is difficult for the individual artist when his style becomes too easily identified -- and identifiable -- with the style of one or more of his predecessors. Yet the sentiment of the cliche carries with it some kernel of truth or it would not have become hackneyed in the first place.

In jazz, we have witnessed the relatively rapid and certainly robust flowering of an art form for about 100 years. The untrained ear, initially receiving the sublime vibrations of contemporary jazz at the dawn of the 21st century, will, no doubt, experience confusion if those first-heard strains of our music are followed immediately by the "hollers" and work songs that spawned it and made the fields of slavery in North America ever-so-slightly less hellish to the victims of uncompensated servitude.

But it is instructive for those with more experience as jazz listeners to open themselves to such a dissonance every once in a while. A parallel exercise is to read the original Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" alongside any of several quite competent translations into today's English. To be sure, both are rendered in English, albeit six centuries removed from one another, yet the stark display of their differences is jarring even to the most literate.

So it is with jazz. The field hollers of slaves and the smooth stylings of Diana Krall have much more in common than that they are human utterances. This is so because Krall is aware of her jazz heritage -- its roots, it growth, its fullness and its diversity.

There is another contemporary jazz artist, the trumpeter Wallace Roney, who has an even deeper understanding of this heritage. But Roney's experience with the stern economics of the music-consuming marketplace has been in contrast to Miss Krall's almost off-handed success. Roney, whose growth in technique for the past 15 years or so has been on display for jazzers to track, suffers at the cash register because of comparison with his predecessors, predecessors to whom he does great honor by his study and understanding of the tradition upon which he is building his own career.

Now in his early 40s, Roney has been a welcome addition to the jazz fraternity and delightful to hear as he has worked to shed unfair criticisms that he is Miles Davis' doppelganger. To be sure, there are startling similarities between the two. But, one must ask, why should that be a matter of suffering for a talented man who is drawing from a valid -- and time-honored -- well of inspiration? Wasn't Cannonball Adderley once hailed as the new Charlie Parker, only to prove that he had something of his own to offer? Doesn't Oscar Peterson deserve favorable comparison with Art Tatum, despite their obvious stylistic differences? Isn't Roney's wife, Geri Allen, making new the eccentricities of Thelonious Monk?

The irony is that what should be regarded as a virtue in Roney's playing is, too often, deemed a vice. Not content to regard his evolution as a work in progress, Roney's critics unfairly write him off as an imitator. But Roney had the good fortune of cutting his professional teeth in the steamy laboratory of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, a place where even the most road-weary veteran could be confronted with great musicial challenges.

Another Blakey alumnus, Wynton Marsalis, has gone on to a wider popularity, despite the scant one year of difference in their ages. But Marsalis has taken an academic approach, as differentiated from Roney's more intellectual one. Where Marsalis strains to instruct, Roney instinctively produces. And that marks the major difference between them.

After listening to Roney evoke the many-colored emotions of a love ballad from his heart, or the tempetuousness of an up-tempo hard bop workout from his gut, Marsalis sounds to me like a man who merely flaunts his chops and then likes to talk about it until the music is lost in the words.
I'll take Roney any day, because he gives me the sense of an artist who continues his growth. He is still becoming the musician he will be, while Marsalis seems to have settled in for a happy rest in the easy chair of public acceptance.

Herbie Hancock provides a parallel with Roney in this regard. Hancock's early and wonderful Blue Note album, "Maiden Voyage" [1965], often is criticized as derivative. But I hear it as the first major step in Herbie's long, fearless, and often embarrassing journey down the road to elder statesmanship. "Fat Albert Rotunda" [Warner Brothers, 1969], presented us with a Hancock on the Fender Rhodes, surrounded by electrified support -- a departure for Herbie, but certainly derivative of the rock dominance of its day. After that came the embarrassing fusion period, which drew howls of outrage from me. But the experience lent a depth to Hancock's present-day maturity that is wondrous to hear.

Wallace Roney is still growing up in public. Listeners to his more recent recordings, such as "No Room For Argument" [Concord Jazz, 2000], will find some high-wire work they never heard in Miles, and a considered listening to his recordings of the past 10 years will insinuate the notion of the artist-in-transition in any assessment made of their value.

Here are some Roney titles to make for delightful homework. All are in print in the U.S.:

-- "The Wallace Roney Quintet," [Warner, 1995];
-- "Village," [Warner, 1997]; and
-- "According to Mr. Roney," [32 Jazz, 1997].

Take some pleasure and instruction from following this very talented musician's progress. It will be far more edifying than any set of lectures you may encounter. Don't write him off too soon.