When making a tribute album, I would think that an artist would have to walk a fine line between truly saluting a legendary musician or being perceived as trading on the fame of the past master. That sounds like a tricky task, but I think it’s been done the right way with this new release from Justin Time Records, as tenor saxophonist Bennie Wallace and his group give us Disorder At The Border, a tribute to Coleman Hawkins.
Bennie Wallace has himself been a fixture on the jazz scene for well over 30 years, so he’s not a young gun looking for attention. He has a well-deserved reputation as a solid, capable musician, and has made numerous albums through the years, both as a sideman and a leader. He’s performed in some of the world’s top jazz venues, and has even had some success writing music for Hollywood.
Wallace is known for a breathy, full-bodied style that’s been compared to that of Ben Webster, and it works well with the swing-era music from Hawkins’ earlier years. But he also has the capability to transform his playing to an up-tempo bebop sound that’s more reminiscent of Hawkins’ later years, when he became one of the pioneers of that genre.
On this album, which was recorded at the Berlin JazzFest, Wallace has gathered a fairly large group that’s especially well-stocked with saxmen. In addition to Wallace, we have Jesse Davis and Brad Leali on alto and Adam Scroeder on baritone. They’re joined by trumpeter Terell Stafford, Ray Anderson on trombone, bassist Danton Boller, Alvin Queen on drums and Donald Vega on piano. The size of the ensemble helps to provide depth when needed.
I think I enjoyed the older songs best, including Fats Wallers’ classic, “Honeysuckle Rose”, which is performed in an quickened version that features good solos from all the saxmen, and strong work by Vega on piano. I also enormously enjoyed the group’s version of Hawkins’ own immortal tune, “Body And Soul”, which Wallace decided to reinterpret in his own style, rather than attempting to copy the legend. Probably a wise move, if a little risky.
Both the title tune of the album and “Bean And The Boys”, also written by Hawkins, seem here to encompass a freewheeling bop style that feels like a real jam session. Riffs abound in solo after solo, and everyone seems to be having a good time. They’re also enjoying themselves in “Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho”, a 16 minute cut that allows room for everyone to have a turn at the well. And finally, another one I liked a lot, “La Rosita”, which is a little softer and smoother, a ballad with a South of the border flavor.
A good effort from Bennie Wallace and his group, and a vote of confidence from this particular listener.