September 14, 2020. Philadelphia born-and-bred trumpeter Wallace Roney learned from legends, played with legends, and ultimately died one too soon, passing away from complications of the coronavirus this past March at age 59. The former Young Lion whom JazzTimes once dubbed “the man with the golden horn” got to play alongside his heroes—giants like Philly Joe Jones, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis. The story goes that Roney was the only trumpet protégé Miles ever took on; he never hoarded his riches.
Roney’s 22nd and final album was last year’s Blue Dawn-Blue Nights, a testament not only to his virtuosity as an instrumentalist but his generosity as a mentor. So many of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger alumni have become celebrated teachers and mentors to the next generations after leaving what might be thought of as jazz’s most prestigious and fruitful work-study program. And one of the coolest things about Blue Dawn-Blue Nights is how Roney treats his young charges much the same as Blakey used to: everybody plays and (almost everybody) writes. Roney here, like Blakey before him, has recruited musicians whose voices he expects to stand out.
“I might say, ‘let’s go here,’ or ‘do this here,’” Roney said ahead of Blue Dawn’s release. “But I give the guys a forum to write and make a statement.”
So like Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons and Wayne Shorter before them, up-and-comers like saxophonist Emilio Modeste, 20, and pianist Oscar Williams—who, at 32, actually raises the mean age of the band—add materially to Roney’s canon; their original compositions account for nearly half the album.
Roney, though, speaks first, on “Bookendz,” the opener. After a bottom-heavy prologue led by a drumming tandem of Lenny White, 70, and Kojo Odu Roney (Wallace’s 16-year-old nephew), the leader lays down a solo of sophisticated modesty and restrained fire, leaving the full-fledged fire breathing to Modeste, who follows with a tornadic opening solo on soprano sax. This young man must’ve caught Bull Durham a time or two; it seems as though someone’s instructed him to announce his presence with authority.
For my money, Roney’s most unforgettable on the second cut, “Why Should There Be Stars?” Pared down to just piano (Williams), bass (21-year-old Paul Cuffari), and Roney, this is the leader’s Miles Davis moment. There’s no doubting the resemblance in tone, articulation, and, most of all, feeling. It’s undeniable.
In other places throughout the album—“Bookendz,” “Don’t Stop Me Now”—it’s the ’80s Miles Davis we hear. But here, it’s Kind of Blue. Suddenly you remember that a trumpet in the right hands can communicate the most profound sense of yearning, the most cavernous loneliness. 2020’s been a tough year; if you haven’t had yourself a good cry in a while—and you’d like one—throw this one on and let it do the work it’s meant to do.
Roney almost seems to take care of the pathos up front so he can leave the final, youthfully exuberant, say to Modeste, who’s composed the album’s last two tracks. On “Venus Rising,” Modeste and Roney charge in through the front door, playing the former’s catchy but intricate theme in unison before exchanging blistering solos. Roney’s technique, his facility, his sheer athleticism and universe of musical ideas. Less than a year before his death and he’s still working here with the whole package—if anything, just getting stronger, wiser. That’s what makes how he died so incredibly sobering.
Modeste’s “Elliptical” is the closer, a frenetic, free-form type of tune that late-stage John Coltrane would’ve really dug. The flurry of time changes don’t seem to phase Kojo Odu Roney, who literally does not miss a single beat and miraculously keeps the entire complex thing on a string.
Elsewhere, Lenny White’s “Wolfbane,” is perhaps the most pleasant of Blue Dawn’s surprises. White, at 70, is still a treasure, as peppery and lightning quick as ever but also demonstrating a malleability that allows him to provide optimal support to each soloist, all while working brilliantly in tandem with Cuffari.
Williams’ original, “In a Dark Room,” is another one where you’ll simply marvel at how steady and confident a musician the younger Roney is. He does much more here than just hang in; he belongs.
You might consider ending with a couple of tunes that will bring to mind Miles Davis. There’s Dave Liebman’s dissonant post-bop classic “New Breed,” which brings to mind the style of tunes favored by Miles’ quintets of the late ’60s and Toto’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” a mid-’80s pop tune featuring a guesting Miles.
Roney was no doubt his own man, with his own sound, who leaves behind his own remarkable legacy. Yet, his association with Davis, the essence of Miles’ sound within Roney’s own provides relative context for the rarefied place Roney must be said to inhabit among jazz music’s all-time greats.