For Wayne Wallace, Intercambio doesn’t refer to a trendy idea or an optimistic gloss on difficult international relations. In his creatively charged body of music, intercambio, or cultural interchange, is a soul-deep communion, an ongoing and never ending intra-family conversation between the extraordinarily rich African Diaspora cultures of the United States and Cuba (and various Caribbean cousins). The fifth release by the twice Grammy-nominated Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio adds an enthralling new chapter to the dialogue. The album is slated for release on Wallace’s Patois Records on July 7, 2015.
Featuring percussion legend Michael Spiro, powerhouse bassist David Belove, versatile drummer and percussionist Colin Douglas, and ace pianist Murray Low, the Latin Jazz Quintet brings together some of the most formidable and sought after musicians in the Bay Area (though Wallace and Spiro now spend much of their time in Bloomington, where they’re professors at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music). These musicians are steeped in jazz, popular Cuban music and Afro-Cuban folkloric roots, but as American-born artists with no Caribbean ancestry, they became clave initiates in young adulthood. With no proprietary agenda “we have nothing to prove in that respect,” Wallace says. “It allows us to express our own voices in the music, and gives us a lot of license to explore the melding of the different styles.”
The album opens with the blazing modal mambo “Casa Del Sol,” a piece dedicated to Eddie Palmieri, who embodies the exploratory spirit embraced by Wallace and his collaborators. With Mary Fettig’s lustrous flute and Mads Tolling’s searing violin expanding the band to a septet, Wallace artfully references Palmieri’s epochal ensemble La Perfecta, as well as some of his seminal jazz influences. Fettig and Tolling also contribute brilliantly to Wallace’s hypnotic arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” which opens and closes with a sacred Santería Afro-Cuban melody.
Wallace provides plenty of space for his colleagues to stretch out and express themselves, but even a casual listener can’t miss the strength and authority of his trombone work throughout. He tips his hat to the horn’s greatest practitioner with J. J. Johnson’s “Shutter Bug (Fotógrafo que hay en ti),” a sinuous four-trombone arrangement inspired by a transcription of Johnson’s solo that Wallace acquired from Indiana University jazz doyenne David Baker more than 30 years ago.
The album’s conceptual centerpiece is Wallace’s re-harmonized take on the Miles Davis/Chuck Wayne standard “Solar (En El Solar De Miles), which links Miles’ insistent and increasing Afrocentric sensibility to solares, the Cuban fraternal associations created during slavery for maintaining African cultural and religious practices. In the coro the band chants “En el solar del principe Miles, la gente va a gozar” (in the solar of Prince Miles, the people go to enjoy themselves), a bit of word play that captures the celebratory, defiant and subversive nature of intercambio.
The conversation gets thick and furious with Wallace’s ingenious arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop anthem “Woody n’ You” (also known as “Algo Bueno”) set to an irresistible Puerto Rican bomba groove. With Joe Galvin providing shimmering steel drum textures and mixing it up with Wallace’s trombone, the piece adds a Trinidadian vibe to the charged dance floor energy generated at a bomba party. Wallace closes with Miles Davis’s ethereal modal ballad “Circle,” a sublime chamber jazz setting featuring a string quartet. Crooning gently through his horn, Wallace has never sounded better, which is saying something given his illustrious history.
In a career spanning four decades, the musically multilingual San Francisco native has collaborated with a dazzling array of artists as a composer, arranger, first-call freelancer and studio ace, including Count Basie, Ray Charles, Joe Henderson, Carlos Santana, Lionel Hampton, Earth Wind & Fire, Sonny Rollins, Aretha Franklin, Tito Puente, Lena Horne, Stevie Wonder, John Lee Hooker, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and Kronos Quartet cellist Jean Jeanrenaud. One of his generation’s most eloquent trombonists, he’s been named in DownBeat polls as a leading force on the horn. Known to many as “The Doctor” for his production skills, Wallace is also a lauded composer who has received numerous commissions over the past two decades.
His debut album as a leader, 2000’s Three In One (Spirit Nectar), showcased his writing skills and his encyclopedic knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythms. The album wasn’t so much groundbreaking as utterly personal, the distillation of years spent soaking up son and salsa, bebop and hip hop, East Bay grease and descarga release. It’s a distinctive Bay Area sound shaped by the singular confluence of musicians, and the album features a cross-section of his colleagues in clave. “We have fostered a sound here that’s not New York or Miami,” Wallace says. “It’s a sound that flows from familiarity, from playing together over for so many years is so many different situations.”
It’s hard to overstate Wallace’s role in the emergence of the Bay Area’s vital Latin jazz scene. As a featured soloist and arranger in various big bands led by Pete Escovedo he helped hone the percussionist’s populist sound blending rock and funk with Latin grooves. He acquired a deep feeling for folkloric Afro-Cuban forms in Conjunto Cespedes, the pioneering West Coast son ensemble. And as a founding member and co-musical director of John Santos’s Machete Ensemble, he was a pillar of the talent-laden progressive Latin jazz band for more than 20 years until Santos disbanded it in 2006. “Wayne’s writing and playing largely defined our sound and direction,” Santos says.
Wallace is driven by his wide-ranging curiosity. A conversation with him is unlikely to stay focused on music. Whether the topic is literature, movies, politics, dance or theater, he soaks up and assimilates new facts and ideas. When he finds himself in a musical situation in which he feels less than totally grounded, he’ll seek out more information, which is what led him to make several trips to Cuba in the mid-90s. “My biggest thing is I don’t like to be on the outside of music,” Wallace says. “I got tired of the percussionist having a rhythmic language I didn’t understand. Studying in Cuba really helped me get a greater affinity for the cultural part of the music and to understand the dynamics of it.”
In recent years he’s concentrated on leading the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, a state of the art crucible for cultural exchange. The band has released five CDs on his Patois Records, starting with 2008’s critically acclaimed Infinity, an album that also introduced Wallace’s penchant for featuring guest artists like sensational vocalist Kenny Washington and trombone legend Julian Priester, a Wallace mentor, who made memorable appearances on 2009’s Grammy-nominated CD ¡Bien Bien! He’s maintained the same stellar cast of players with the exception of Colin Douglas taking over the drum chair from late, beloved Paul van Wageningen on 2013’s Grammy-nominated Latin Jazz/Jazz Latin. With Intercambio, Wallace shows that his teaching responsibilities in Indiana have deepened his sound and vision.