Growing up in Tennessee, Bennie Wallace absorbed the special flavors of the music indigenous to that part of the country: rhythm and blues, gospel, bluegrass, and country. "A kid growing up in the South at that time could hear a lot of great music," he remembers. But as an aspiring saxophonist, Wallace was also studying his instrument and listening to its great jazz exponents. While experiencing the classical repertory in school musical ensembles, he was also studying the recordings of such favorites as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Stanley Turrentine, and Lockjaw Davis, as well as rhythm and blues saxophonists like Red Prysock. Later, while receiving a formal music education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, he discovered Charlie Parker and the followers of Lester Young. All along, Bennie was working and sitting in with area bands in many and varied settings.
In the late 1970s, after graduating from college as a clarinet major, Bennie arrived in New York. His early years in the city were marked by diversified playing activity that included the groups of pianist Monty Alexander and singer Sheila Jordan. Wallace formed a trio with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Eddie Moore and recorded an album for ENJA Records entitled The Fourteen Bar Blues that won a number of honors, including Germany's equivalent of a jazz Grammy, a High Fidelity critics' award for Best Jazz Album of the year for Bennie, and selection as Billboard's top jazz album. It also led to a relationship with ENJA that saw the release of six more critically acclaimed recordings under Wallace's own name and the beginning of numerous concert and festival appearances in Europe and Japan. As an indication of his high acclaim, Wallace is a five-time winner of Downbeat magazine's Talent Deserving Wider Recognition Award.
In the late 1980s, Wallace signed with the rejuvenated Blue Note Records, for whom he recorded two well-received albums, Twilight Time and Bordertown, both of which drew heavily upon the musical culture of his native South. Although during most of this period the trio's live performances featured Gomez and Dannie Richmond, Wallace was recording as a leader with a wide array of artists, including David Holland, Elvin Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Chick Corea. The two Blue Note recordings involved musicians like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dr. John, who represented an expanded range of musical backgrounds. Still, Wallace's two Denon releases of that same period, Brilliant Corners (a duo performance with Yosuke Yamashita) and The Art Of The Saxophone, provided evidence of a continuing commitment to his own unique version of mainstream modern jazz.
After hearing Twilight Time, Hollywood director Ron Shelton invited Bennie to provide music for his film Bull Durham. That involvement led to Wallace's scoring of Shelton's next movie, Blaze, and following that, White Men Can't Jump, for which he composed the score and the song "If I Lose", performed in the movie by Aretha Franklin. The animated short Redux Riding Hood and the short Little Surprises with Rod Steiger and Julie Harris, and directed by Jeff Goldblum, also featured his music and were nominated for Oscars.
In addition to composing, Wallace continued to record as a leader and as a guest artist with others as well as performing throughout the world. His 1993 album The Old Songs (AudioQuest) is dedicated to his inspiring encounter with legendary pianist Jimmy Rowles. "I went in a new direction. All I did for six months was to practice the melody and sing the songs and learn the lyrics," said Wallace. As Jimmy Rowles commented on hearing The Old Songs, "Bennie's claws are leaving high slashes on the Big Tree with this one." The Talk Of The Town, released in November of 1993, marked the renewal of Wallace's relationship with ENJA. In addition, a recording of Wallace's big band compositions, commissioned by the Hamburg Radio Orchestra and the Berlin Jazz Festival, was released by the Finnish National Jazz Orchestra on a Scandinavian label.
Having recently returned to the New York area from California, in April of 1998 Wallace recorded his second album for AudioQuest, entitled simply Bennie Wallace and featuring Tommy Flanagan, Eddie Gomez, and Alvin Queen. In the summer of the same year, Bennie completed an all Gershwin album, Someone To Watch Over Me, with Mulgrew Miller, Peter Washington, and Yoron Israel. The latter recording was designated Rondo magazine?s Jazz Album of the Month for February 1999, received Swing Journal's Golden Disc Award, and was listed among Jazz Times magazine's Critic's Picks of 1998.
1999 was a busy year for Bennie Wallace. He recorded a live album at the Berlin Jazz Festival with George Cables, Peter Washington, and Herlin Riley. The recording was released by ENJA in 2002 as Bennie Wallace in Berlin. During that year he also composed a string quartet score for Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steve Moore's animated film, The Indescribable Nth, and began composing jazz film scores for the Showtime dramatic series The Hoop Life, which he recorded with some of New York's leading jazz musicians.
Bennie recorded Moodsville for GrooveNote Records in 2001. Released the next year, the album, with Mulgrew Miller, Peter Washington, and Lewis Nash, was a Jazz Times Critics? Pick for 2002. Also during 2002, the string quartet Ethel performed the film score from The Indescribable Nth as well as "Big Jim Does the Tango For You", the title song from one of Bennie's earlier trio albums.
At present, Bennie is preparing for a March 2003 ENJA recording with pianist Kenny Barron.
As an improviser, Bennie Wallace possesses an uncommon knowledge of the music of his predecessors. Not just Dolphy, Coltrane, and Coleman, but their mentors as well; Bennie has spent a great deal of time studying such earlier saxophone masters as Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Don Byas. Assimilating much of the history of his instrument, he has remolded it into a unique personal style that defies easy categorization. It is a style that, while reflecting its heritage, is yet fresh sounding and contemporary. Wallace's tone is full and resonant whether articulating a post-bop expressionism or a quiet romanticism. His prodigious technique is indispensable to an approach that at fast tempos explores the extremes of the instrument with virtuosic arpeggios, scales, and melodic fragments, but on ballads transforms into a warm, often delicate, lyricism. A robust soulfulness is yet a third aspect of the Wallace conception. Bennie's music is mostly tonal and harmonically oriented, and he favors improvising in relation to the melody of a piece rather than simply on its chord structure. "When I learn a tune, I learn the melody in all keys, and I'll spend more time doing that than on anything else."
Bennie Wallace the composer complements Wallace the performer. While Wallace's written music reflects many of the myriad streams of twentieth-century composition, including the French Impressionists and American classical composers, as well as Ellington and Strayhorn and such songwriters as Gershwin, Porter, and Kern, it, like his playing, is also informed by improvising jazz musicians, from Armstrong to the present. "The composition becomes a part of the playing, with my compositions quite often coming from my playing." Indeed, Bennie considers film composing to be a contributing factor to his continuing growth as a jazz musician. "The two activities feed off of each other. In researching music and learning the techniques of film writing, I've learned things that have changed my jazz playing. And, of course, the things I do as a jazz musician are at the core of what I'm about as a film composer."
The proof can be found in Bennie Wallace's latest jazz recordings. They offer some of his strongest playing to date. And while they are accessible to the educated listener, they remain solidly uncompromising in their commitment to quality.
Alex Ben Block
Eda Godel Hallinan
David L. Simon
Theresa Tere Iturralde
Gary Richard Tigerman
Adele B. Wilson
Toni Bernay PhD
Alison Dara Gallant
Linda J. Loe