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Bennie Wallace In Berlin by Bennie Wallace

One of the finest tenor saxophonists in the jazz field today, Bennie Wallace is hardly one of the best known. Among the congnescenti, he's praised for a rich tone often compared to Ben Webster, combined with a creative impulse that stretches the borders of the genre. He's also an accomplished composer, with credits that include the scores to films like "Blaze" and "White Men Can't Jump." He's somewhat better known in Europe, where he's frequently recorded for the German label Enja, which released this performance from the 1999 Berlin Jazz Festival in 2001. Now Koch has picked it up for US distribution, and it provides a great opportunity for American jazz fans to hear one of the best at his best.

He's accompanied by an equally talented rhythm section, led by pianist George Cables, another player whose reknown fails to match his talents despite his own impressive record as a leader and his work as a sideman with groups led by Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer and others. In fact, his contribution here ranges well beyond the stereotypical role of a sideman, assuming almost a co-leader's position. The bass is in the hands of the inimitable Peter Washington, who has also played with, well, almost everyone, including frequent dates with Wallace. Drummer Herlin Riley is best known for his work with Wynton Marsalis, but his work here proves that he too deserves wider recognition.

The drums kick off "It Ain't Necessarily So," with bass and piano joining to set up a platform for Wallace's entry, stating the theme with an instrumental moan that melts into his typically adventurous exploration of the Gershwin classic. Cables is given his first extended solo in the middle portion, and by the time the opening cut is over it's pretty clear that something special is taking place. The tune yields to another selection from "Porgy And Bess," "I Loves You, Porgy," which features excellent ensemble play until the rhythm section lays out as Wallace takes a true solo, pushing the creative envelope unaccompanied by anyone but his own muse.

"It Has Happened To Me" is Wallace's own inventive take on the changes to "It Could Only Happen To You," and again, he lets Cables run away with the tune for almost 5 minutes before taking his own turn to close.

The group returns to the standard book for Harold Arlen's "Paper Moon," but Wallace's reinvention of the classic is anything but standard as the band pushes toward the outside for nearly ten minutes before returning to Gershwin with "Someone To Watch Over Me." It's a rich melodic interpretation perfectly complemented by Cables' decorative solo. When it's time for Wallace to take his slightly outside solo, the rest of the players lay out again for unaccompanied inspiration from the tenor man.

The Wallace composition "Thangs" is the discs longest track and Wallace solos nonstop, demonstrating his admirable stamina, control and creativity, taking himself and his accompanists further outside as the track progresses. It seems to be the intended close of the set, but they're called back for another Wallace original, "At Lulu White's," an uptempo blues that's highlighted by Riley and Wallace's play on a call and response sequence.

This is an album that should be widely heard, and if it is, it's bound to encourage a closer look at the catalog of one of the finest players in jazz today, and perhaps the finest tenor of his generation.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Bennie Wallace
  • CD Title: Bennie Wallace In Berlin
  • Genre: BeBop / Hard Bop
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: Enja
  • Rating: Five Stars
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