Bennie Wallace

Someone to Watch over Me

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There will be those fans of Tennessee tenor saxophonist Wallace who may hear this as an anomalous aside in his career of playing mostly progressive modern jazz. Others may view it a logical step, a concept album dedicated to the music of George Gershwin. What this reviewer finds fascinating about it is that Wallace plays so flexibly within the melodic intent of these well-worn lines, yet always finds a way to make them all his own. There's a certain restraint, and the simple approach is more refined due to the centered focus provided by the always brilliant pianist Mulgrew Miller, rock-solid bassist Peter Washington, and witty drummer Yoron Israel.

Miller's attention-grabbling persona is most clearly present on his arpeggiated intros of the warm waltz take on "Who Cares?" and the mad love-tinged ballad "I Loves You Porgy." Songs such as the ballad version of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and the easy swing of "The Man I Love" seem like sleepwalking, when in fact these expert musicians can easily play them with effortless elegance. Wallace evokes sonic images of the masters with similar aplomb; he uses wonderful Coleman Hawkins-like embellishments during the title track played with Miller sans rhythm section, and goes into deep blue Ben Webster territory during the lightly swung "I Was Doing Alright." Wallace cannot be completely tamed, though; the 12-minute-plus piece, churning Afro-Cuban switching to steady, driving swing in the bridge, has Wallace in fever pitch with stretched, angular, rambling melodicism, and Miller similarly all over the place as well. Wallace practices typical octave leaping on his solo of the fairly straight-laced melody line of "Nice Work If You Can Get It," proving he can embrace both cool and animated aspects of improvisation.

There's little chaos or bombast, which might disappoint longtime listeners, but instead a nice balance that Wallace attains while retaining the unique flourishes that have made him one of the more recognizable players in jazz.

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