San Francisco trombonist and composer Wayne Wallace began his career performing with musicians such as Aretha Franklin and Earth, Wind and Fire. He now fuses elements of R&B and jazz with a variety of Latin music styles.
Wallace has studied in Cuba and played with some of the greats in Latin music. That's enabled him to create a unique fusion of jazz, R&B and Latin music in his 2013 CD, Latin Jazz - Jazz Latin. In my opinion, it's his best recording yet. Wallace explains the difference between Latin Jazz and Jazz Latin using the example of his version of John Coltrane's classic, Giant Steps.
"Giant Steps is done as if Dominican Republic were looking at it, as opposed to us doing Giant Steps here and adding Latin to it," says Wallace. "Some tunes swing. Others need to be in the rhythm of country of choice. And then you add the jazz harmonies. I wanted to show the intersection of the different genres and styles."
Wallace is an African American musician who came of age performing R&B and straight-ahead jazz. But for the past 30 years, he's focused on the sophisticated rhythms and melodies of Latin America. Wallace soon learned that all musicians, regardless of nationality, can play Latin music. But to earn respect, you have to pay your dues.
"They never barred me from being involved, but you had to have entrée to being included," says Wallace. "I studied the music learned their language to better understand where they were coming from. Once you're willing to take that step, I found it very easy."
Wallace shows that he paid his dues in an original tune called "A Ti Te Gusta," or "As You like it." He uses the Songo style from Cuba to create an original, smoking tune. Songo was originated in the 1980s by the famous Cuban group Los Van Van.
"That's the thing about Los Van Van. They mixed Songo, jazz, R&B… copied widely by international groups," says Wallace. "It manifested itself as Salsa Tropical as opposed to Salsa from New York City."
I asked Wallace how he gets inspired to compose such original tunes.
"I'm an active listener," says Wallace. "It could be an ad, a movie. Ellington described himself as the world’s best listener. I try to be aware of music around me, as well as playing with tunes on a piano and having an idea."
Does the inspiration come all at once or trickle out slowly? Wallace says it can be either.
"I had a bass line I loved but it took me five years to write the bridge," says Wallace. "That ended up on my CD. The process has its own life. The trick is to be patient with it. If I say, ‘Yes I must write this right away, it's no good.’ But if you let go, maybe I come back. Oh look, whole song done."
Do you remember the name of the song that took five years?
"It's called El Duende Africano," says Wallace.
Wayne Wallace is now teaching at Indiana University while continuing to tour with his band.
The Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet is performing on August 1 at the SFJazz Summer Fest at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto.
Reese Erlich's Jazz Perspectives can also be heard online at jazzcorner.com.