The jazz highlight of early summer took place for me on June 25 at Integrity ‘n Music, the record store in Wethersfield, Connecticut, where tenor saxophone legend Bennie Wallace played a trio gig with bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Carmen Intorre. Wallace drew a full house of about 50 who stood and sat amidst aisles of record bins at the specialty store that jazz lover Ed Krech established in 1972. Krech has been hosting in-store concerts for years, and he described Saturday’s as “one of the great moments here at Integrity.”
I hadn’t seen Wallace in at least a decade, and notwithstanding the excellent quality of the shows at Integrity, most have featured emerging, Hartford-area musicians, so I did a double take when I read Bennie’s name in an e-mail from Krech. But jazz cats love to play, and Wallace noted that in addition to touring, he holds regular sessions in his Greenwich living room. (He’s also involved in bringing music into the public schools of the impoverished city of Bridgeport, CT.) When Dwonszyk mentioned the series at Integrity, Wallace was game and he came to play; indeed, there was nothing compromised or abbreviated about his hour-long set in the shop that’s housed in the lower level rear of a cinder block building on the Silas Deane Highway a stone’s throw from the Hartford city line. Powerfully engaged by his hard-swinging trio mates, the Chattanooga native sounded as bracing and full-throated as ever riding the harmonic edge of several standards and three originals.
The set began with an original, “At Lulu White’s,” which Wallace wryly noted took its name from New Orleans’s most famous brothel; he first recorded the hard-charging blues on his 1993 Audioquest release, The Old Songs. Dwonszyk then played the opening melody of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” a ballad staple of Bennie’s for 20 years and the title track of his 1999 Enja album devoted to George Gershwin’s music. His idol, Coleman Hawkins, helped establish the song as a jazz vehicle in the mid-forties. Wallace dedicated his 2007 nonet album, Disorder at the Border, to Hawk, and in that year was filmed playing the most famous of Hawk-associated ballads with bassist Danton Boller and drummer Alvin Queen.
Bennie Wallace Plays Monk was one of the first albums of Monk’s music to be released after the pianist’s death in 1981. (Thelonious died on February 17; Plays Monk was recorded on March 4.) It speaks to the universality of Monk’s music that so many players reveal an affinity for its quirky angularity once they play it, but Wallace’s biting attack, melodic inventiveness, and unpredictability (Jimmy Rowles described him as “Coleman Hawkins on skis”) made him a preternatural Monkophile from early on. Back in the day, John S. Wilson of The New York Times wrote, “Bennie shows himself to be closer to Monk’s piano than was Monk’s own saxist of many years, Charlie Rouse.” (Hawkins was an early promoter of the pianist, and Monk was a member of his combo in 1944; two years later, Hawk made the premiere recording of Monk’s “I Mean You.”)
Wallace’s album of Monk’s music features Eddie Gomez, and he mentioned his long association with the bassist a couple of times on Saturday to underscore how impressed he is with Dwonszyk. He praised the Hartford native as a player whose “tone and time” combine to make him a promising “front line player.” Matt’s a protege of the recently deceased Paul Brown and a graduate of SUNY-Purchase. He was the resonating force for everything on Saturday, and was especially impressive on Monk’s notoriously difficult and rarely performed “Brilliant Corners.”
Bennie humored us with the assertion that his next selection was older than anyone in the room, then proceeded with an ingenious combination of the ante-bellum spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and Jerome Kern’s 1933 classic, “Yesterdays.” While marveling over the powerful trio dynamic unfolding before us, I couldn’t help but think of Sonny Rollins’s groundbreaking tenor/bass/drums combos. Here’s the Saxophone Colossus is in 1965 with Niels-Hening Orsted Pedersen and Alan Dawson.
The set continued with Wallace’s original “Green and Yellow,” followed by “Sweet and Lovely,” and “Thangs,” an elaboration on “All the Things You Are.” Here’s what it sounded like in 2007.