Like the rest of the jazz community, I’m deeply saddened at the passing of Wallace Roney, the trumpet genius who died this morning of complications from COVID-19. I didn’t know Wallace well, but we did have a professional relationship, and during the 2010s I had a couple of opportunities to write about him. At the top of this post is a Downbeat feature from 2016, framed around the then-recent release, A Place In Time and another, a still-as-yet-unreleased recording of his production of Wayne Shorter’s 1960s masterwork, Universe. Below that is a transcript of interview that I conducted with Wallace (he reviewed the transcript for accuracy) when he gave the 6th performance of Universe at the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival with a 21-piece orchestra conducted by Bob Belden — they only got halfway through it, before a lightning storm ended the concert. Below that, I’ve included my review of that concert and the edited interview.
Wallace Roney 2016 Downbeat Feature:
It’s hard to cite a more accomplished 2016 release than Wallace Roney’s A Place In Time (High Note). For his 18th leader date since 1987, a nine-tune recital, the 56-year-old trumpeter assembled a sextet comprised of four over-60 masters—Gary Bartz on alto and soprano saxophone, Patrice Rushen on piano, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums—and wunderkind Ben Solomon on tenor and soprano saxophone. Throughout the proceedings, Roney and company improvise fluently and passionately on vocabulary and syntax postulated in the pathbreaking 1960s recordings of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and such Miles alumni as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, generating the go-for-broke attitude that defined the era. Roney’s intensely melodic solos have an architectural, inevitable quality, but close listening reveals the instant decisions he makes in mapping out his well-designed routes.
“They were my band from 1998 to 2001, but we never recorded,” Roney said in the Blue Note’s dressing room on October 26th, before a soundcheck-rehearsal for night one of Chick Corea’s “For Miles” project, with Milesians Kenny Garrett, Mike Stern and Marcus Miller, and drummer Brian Blade. “That’s why we did this. We got together for two days, pulled out some tunes, reacted and responded to each other, and goaded each other to play better.”
He was asked to decode the title. “It could mean a place in time when only innovation mattered and what was being said was more important than the instruments involved,” Roney responded. “All of them lived it. They play this thing nobody else can play, and can’t express it with anyone else because no one understands it. They are innovative musicians. Everybody brings something to the table, and we all shape everybody’s music. That’s what Miles did.”
A Place In Time marks a point of departure from the last three of Roney’s six prior dates for High Note, his label since 2004, eleven years after he concluded an initial seven-album run for label proprietor Joe Fields’ previous imprint, Muse. On those, he emulated Art Blakey, his frequent ’80s employer, by hiring less experienced aspirants, among them Solomon, pianists Aruán Ortiz and Victor Gould, bassists Rahsaan Carter and Daryl Johns, and drummer Kush Abadey.
“Sometimes younger guys aren’t as up on things as you’d like,” Roney said, without naming names. “You teach them, they play with other people, and when they come back, they forget instead of utilizing it when you start to go for it. You want the time to be more elastic. They’re playing licks they heard but don’t understand how to expand on. They don’t know different ways to play a chord, or reinvent or substitute that chord, or how to make something go a certain way melodically. It’s frustrating.
“I want young cats to be open to everything. But sometimes you wish the music would go forward, not backward. I want them to understand that music didn’t stop in 1960, and it isn’t beginning in 2016. Kamasi Washington is not Coltrane. Coltrane is fifty years ago. Who’s more advanced? You’ve got to learn the most innovative things. If you can’t do them, you’re not in the ballpark. Learn why Trane and Wayne were able to do what they did, and be able to do it. Understand what Ornette was playing, or Herbie and John McLaughlin and Tony and Elvin. Those are the high-water marks. Then use your creativity, and see if you can add to it. Not just some pentatonics or false fingers, but the idea of that type of virtuosity and spirituality, the merging of mind and spirit, time and universe. This music is hard. People who want to play it on that level of communication and telepathy have to do a lot of studying. It’s a never-ending process.”
Roney has practiced what he preaches. As a child in north Philadelphia during the ’60s, he associated jazz with his father and his circle, who “were into social rights and civil rights and Nation of Islam—trying to enlighten and lift themselves.” He continued: “Jazz was a music of intelligence, whereas other music was social music. The radio was playing Smokey Robinson and John Coltrane. I liked John Coltrane. I didn’t have to like Smokey Robinson, although Smokey was cool.”
He was already playing trumpet and listening to his father’s records “at 5 or 6,” when Miles Davis entered his consciousness. “I could hear Miles was reaching for something,” Roney said. “He was my idol.” He heard, dug and assimilated Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham, and Clifford Brown. “My father would tell me he thought Clifford was better than Miles, and we’d argue. Matter of fact, I was so mad, I asked Clark Terry about it. Clark gave me the best answer. ‘It’s like apples and oranges; they’re both good.’”
Roney had moved with his father to Washington, D.C. when he introduced himself to Terry after a set at Blues Alley. Terry brushed him off, but, at a second encounter, asked the 12-year-old to play something. Roney responded with Morgan’s solo on “M&M” from the Jazz Messengers album Meet You At the Jazz Corner of the World. An enduring mentorship ensued. Soon thereafter, Roney met Gillespie, who showed him “different scales, things about mouthpieces, and breathing exercises.” At 15, he sat in with Art Blakey, At 16, he sat in with Cedar Walton, who subsequently hired him for a two-week engagement. He matriculated at Howard University, left after a year when Abdullah Ibrahim took him on the road, then transferred to Berklee. “I was aiming to go to New York,” Roney says, explaining why he left school in 1981 to join Blakey, looking for a trumpeter to replace Wynton Marsalis, who had moved on to tour with Shorter, Hancock, Ron Carter and Williams.
Two years later, Roney joined Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff, Jimmy Owens, Art Farmer and Maynard Ferguson “to each play a couple of choruses on a fast blues and end with a fanfare” at a Miles Davis retrospective concert at Radio City Music Hall. Hancock, Carter and Williams were the rhythm section. After rehearsal, Carter introduced him to his partners. After the show next evening, Farmer informed Roney that Davis wanted to meet him. “I went to Miles’ dressing room,” Roney said. “He told me, ‘I heard you up there, playing those things. Here’s my number, call me tomorrow.’” He called, and received an invitation to visit.
From then until Miles’ death, Roney says, “I saw him every time he was in town, if I could. Or if he was playing, I was always there. Miles didn’t like a lot of silly people, but he took me. He didn’t just pick me out of the street. He heard someone who was going inside his back pocket, his best stuff, and he said, ‘Man, how did you figure that out? Ok. Come on over here.’ I wasn’t just playing a couple of his licks. I was trying to figure out the theory, and giving my heart to it, because I knew it was the next extension of what the music is about.”
On October 27 with Corea, in the first chorus of his solo on the set-opening “All Blues,” Roney hewed closely to Davis’ original 1959 presentation on Kind of Blue, then counterstated with complex, chromatic variations, creating long lines phrased to fall at odd places against the intense groove locked down by Stern, Miller and Blade. Later, during a long section on “Splatch,” he and Miller ping-ponged rhythms back and forth; on “My Man’s Gone Now,” he stated the theme with lyric, smoldering, achingly poignant tone, then, as the flow quickened, offered a master class in creating artful melodic variations.
“Wallace plays in Miles’ spirit, and he captures that essence, but there’s more to it,” Garrett said a few days later. “I’d hone in first on his beautiful, round sound—it grabs your attention immediately. We met when we were both 17—he was playing more like Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard then, and he already knew harmony. Now he’s evolved to another level harmonically, extending the lines, playing harmony on top of harmony. What he does is incredible. He’s way ahead of the game.”
After the October 26 soundcheck, Roney discussed his decision, taken in his early twenties, to embrace Davis’ innovative strategies as a jumping-off point. “I admired Woody Shaw, who basically came from Freddie Hubbard, who was the first to play those fourths and pentatonics on the trumpet, trying to play like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy,” he said. “Woody took that aspect of Freddie, and developed it so much that it became his signature. Now, to me, Miles took the music to a very high level that no one else has gotten to. Trumpet-wise, too, as far as playing poetically on the trumpet—though no one surpassed Dizzy for technique. I told myself that if I could do with Miles what Woody did with Freddie, at least I’m not going backwards.”
He developed his conception during a long run with Williams’ unparalleled quintet, which he joined after playing on Williams’ 1985 album, Foreign Intrigue. Simultaneously, Blakey brought Roney back to the Messengers. Both bands were busy, and Roney spent a year trying to balance conflicting schedules, until committing fully to Williams, who gave him a mandate to “open up the chords” a la Miles, Trane and Wayne.
“I told Tony I was trying not to do that because I didn’t want people to say we’re trying to be Miles and Tony,” Roney recalled. “Tony said, ‘Don’t listen to what they say.’ He gave me the green light. Tony taught me polyrhythms, time modulations, and expansive rhythm. We played the changes, always played the form, but we didn’t have to play it in a locked way. We flowed. I’d play melodies and leave space between the beats, and fill it up like a brushstroke. It prepared me for playing with Miles and Herbie and Wayne.”
That opportunity occurred in July 1991, when Davis—who had been actively coaching Roney since they met—asked his disciple to play alongside him in a Quincy Jones-directed “Birth Of The Cool” concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival that would be his valedictory. After Montreux, Roney recalls, “Miles said to me, ‘Wally, me and you are like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong; I’m King Oliver because I’m the chief.’” After Miles died two months later, Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams decided to form a tribute band, and asked Roney to assume the trumpet chair. He participated in several “Miles Davis Legacy” tours with them before forming his own band in 1994.
“When Miles passed, I felt that Wallace was the one,” Shorter told me. “He wanted to keep going with not necessarily Miles’ vision, but his vision is really connected with Miles. I see him as standing on the shoulders of what Miles was doing, like when a father lifts up a kid at a parade and the kid starts telling the father what’s coming down the street. Wallace projects the never-give-up thing, going on the trail less-trodden. The other trail is crowded with wannabes and pop-this and pop-that—simplicity, simplicity and simplicity. I like what Einstein said: Yeah, we know we need simplicity, but no simpler. A lot of people fall by the wayside, give up and, like they say, ‘sell out.’ You want the people who take the hard trail, that warrior thing. Selling out is more noticeable than persevering. We have to make persevering more noticeable.”
“Wallace doesn’t compromise,” White affirmed. “He’s dipped and dabbed in this and that, but he’s a consummate musician and artist, because he doesn’t change his attitude about what he does. He’s authentic. I know he’s misunderstood—he has a real clear conscience and a clear direction, and sometimes that is perceived as a threat.”
After the Miles Davis Legacy tours Roney was reluctant “to jump back and play with somebody else as a sideman.” “How am I going to go back with someone who isn’t on their level?” he asked rhetorically. “I figured I had to take what those guys personally showed me, and use that knowledge in my band. Miles told me that if he ever got a band again, he wanted Tony, Herbie and Wayne, but, although he loved Ron, he thought he would still use Foley or Marcus Miller. He wanted that blend, and I started figuring that electro-acoustic was the way to go.”
Electro-acoustic is the template on In An Ambient Way [Chesky], a 2015 project on which the late Bob Belden, who had retained Roney’s services on numerous projects for a quarter-century, reimagined In A Silent Way with Roney, Oz Noy on guitar, Kevin Hays on Fender Rhodes, Johns on bass and White on drums. More consequential is a studio recording of Universe, an orchestral suite that Shorter composed, at Miles’ request, in 1967. The band broke up, the music was put away, and then rediscovered, Roney estimates, around 2006.
“Wayne called to say he’d found this music, and I was the only one who could do this,” Roney recalled. Shorter cosigns: “I sent him the scores just to do whatever he could do with it.” Roney continues: “My reaction was that this was the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’d all been trying to write something that would be the next step after, say, “Nefertiti.” But here it was, from the originator, the person who thinks like that—and not only that, he orchestrated it. In all this music, you can hear the conception of the band, how Wayne’s music influenced the band, Wayne’s reaction to the band. It’s a microcosm of everything that was going on.”
Perplexingly, Roney has not found a record company willing to release this labor of love. “We’ve had time to digest all the intricacies and respond, so the level is very high,” Roney said. “I’m very proud of it, and I’m happy that I documented it for posterity. I have no faith that a label will be interested, but I’d love to get it on the commercial market. If that ever happens, the world can hear it.”
“It’s hard to get a record deal,” Shorter said. “But never give up spirit. By persevering, Wallace is finding the key to open the door. More and more, Wallace doesn’t have to lean on what Miles did. He has to lean on HIMSELF.”
Roney signified his own feelings on receiving the torch that Miles bestowed upon him by quoting John 5:19-20 from the New Testament and II Kings from the Old Testament in the booklet accompanying the 2000 CD No Room For Argument. But he deflected a question on his thoughts about passing the torch himself as he assumes elder statesman status.
“I haven’t done anything yet to have something to pass on,” Roney demurred. “But Universe and the record with my sextet are two of the best I’ve made. If I don’t get a chance to record again, I’d be satisfied with what I just did.”
TP: I read the piece in the Times and the interview in All About Jazz from last year where you talked a lot about this. Perhaps we’ll be covering some older territory, but let’s go for it anyway. Mostly about this program, and perhaps some other current things…
Roney: This is current.
TP: Tell me the back story.
Roney: The back story is, Wayne Shorter had written some music for Miles, for the Quintet, when he was part of the Quintet, and that band was probably the greatest band ever. The things they did, each record that came out, introduced something new that people hadn’t thought of or that was amazing on an individual level and on an interactive level. So after ESP and Miles Smiles and The Sorcerer and Nefertiti and Miles In the Sky, you said, “Well, what can they do next?” Obviously, Miles had asked Wayne to write a big orchestra piece. That’s why what I just said is important. This was the next level.
Wayne writes like that anyway. Like I say, Wayne always writes with a lot in mind anyhow.
So as he wrote these pieces for Miles, what wound up happening is the band was starting to break apart. Ron left, Herbie got fired, Tony left, and then Wayne left. I think that their feelings were hurt, because they really were a unit. They weren’t just cats that they had a gig, and they played, and they played good. They really loved each other. So each one of them, I think, took it personally. When I speak to these guys, even now, if they thought whatever…
So I think in Wayne’s case, he put the music under his bed or put it away, and forgot about it, and, you know, then Weather Report happened, and then years went by, and then his band. Then somebody remembered that he had written this music for Miles, and they looked it up in the Library of Congress and saw that it was registered. So then the buzz started coming out, and someone asked Wayne about it. Wayne also said Miles had said to him, before Miles died, “Hey, you remember that music that you wrote? We need to do that. Let’s pull it; let’s do it.” And I know that’s true. I know it’s true, because even though people said Miles never looked back, which he didn’t, he didn’t look back at his successes. But he wasn’t about to leave those things that he pioneered. He didn’t. Even in his last incarnation of his band, they were incorporating things like “Milestones” into their solo sections!
So when Miles decided to do the Gil Evans music… I know people thought he said he didn’t want to do it, but Miles had been telling me that he wanted to do it as far back as 1988. Then there’s a thing on VH-1 where you see him and Foley together, and he says it. So he has been hinting at that kind of thing for a while. And when Gerry Mulligan did the Rebirth of the Cool, Miles did agree to do it again—to re-do it. I guess he was just inspired by the moment.
All that to say I understand Miles wanting to go back and do Wayne’s music, because it never really got done. One piece did, the others didn’t—and none of it was recorded.
So Wayne said Miles asked him to go back and find these pieces also. So that, in combination with this other guy reminding Wayne, or bugging him, about this piece, he went and looked for it, and he found it.
TP: Do you know who this person was?
Roney: Bertrand Überall. So Wayne found the music one day. I think it was around 2006. He called me and he said he’d found this music, and he wanted me to play it. He was telling me that…saying a lot of nice things, and that he wrote it for Miles and I’m the only one who could do this. Very nice things. I loved Wayne anyway. So he found all the music and we had discussions, and next thing you know, he sent me the music.
TP: What was your reaction when you first examined the music?
Roney: Yeah, when I examined it… The Dead Sea Scrolls, That’s exactly right. I looked at it… He sent me a lot. When I looked at it, I said, “Man, this is incredible.” It’s like all of us had been trying to write something that’s going to be the next step after “Nefertiti” or something, but here it was, from the originator, from the person who thinks like that, but not only that, he orchestrated it, and you could see it was his orchestration. It was from his mind. Sometimes, on one of the pieces, Miles might get Gil Evans to orchestrate something of His or one of the guys tunes or something. This one was from the mind of Wayne Shorter, and you can see all these things. In that music, you can hear the band, you can hear the conception of the band, you can hear Wayne’s music and how it influenced the band, and you can hear Wayne’s reaction to the band and how the band influenced him too, all in the music. It was like a little universe, a microcosm of everything that has been going on, right in there. It was amazing. I got some guys over. Everybody was excited. We would look at the score, and each person would try to read a part of the score. That’s how it started.
TP: Did you consult with Wayne on the interpretation?
Roney: Of course. Well, what Wayne told me…
TP: I’m wondering what his reaction was 40 years later.
Roney: First of all, Wayne never heard what I did with it. But see, I had been with Wayne and Herbie and those guys, and I had been with Miles. Wayne told me to do what I hear with it.
TP: He trusted you.
Roney: Yeah, he trusted me. He knew that I knew things, and I had been well-versed. He said, “don’t fall into illusions and people trying to take you off your path; you can do this.”
TP: What do you think he meant by that?
Roney: I don’t think like , “what does he mean by that”, Ted. I just do it!
TP: I’m just curious.
Roney: Yeah, I know. But I don’t think like that. I just do, man. I think it’s flattering.
TP: You showed me the letter. He wrote, “don’t give in to outside illusions and delusions” — that was very personal. He probably didn’t say it lightly.
Roney: Of course.
TP: When did you meet Wayne?
Roney: The first time I met Wayne Shorter, who was my hero since I was 3 years old… Miles was my hero. Have you seen my nephew, Kojo, and my Son Wally?
TP: Only on Youtube.
Roney: Wally and Kojo is like me, and my son is like that. I loved the music from when I was like 3 years old. So that’s the backdrop. Me and my brother… My brother loved Wayne and Trane, and I loved Miles, and we loved the music, Jazz! We were chasing the music… Everybody else was dancing toR&B, or the Dells and Stylistics and all that stuff. We were looking at them like: Yeah, that’s because you don’t know nothin’. This is music that takes your head somewhere, that helps you understand life. That’s what we were thinking at 3 years old. I understood that. They thought I was a prodigy. I was reading; I used to read Jet and Ebony magazine and all that. They told me I could read Dr. Seuss. Next thing, I saw a picture of Miles Davis in the magazine, and I’m reading that—I want to know what that’s about. Or Malcolm X or Ray Robinson.
TP: You were born in 1960, right, Wallace?
Roney: Yes, sir. So we were following the music and Wayne’s innovations and when I finally got a chance to see him was in 1972. It was in Boston. Even though I was living in Philadelphia, my father had a friend who was later to become his third wife, and he took us up there. They had a festival up there, and Weather Report was on the festival. That’s when it was Eric Gravatt and Miroslav and Joe and Dom! Man, they were amazing. Wayne was still playing like there was no tomorrow, like he had just left Miles’ band. Or, like he always plays. You can’t put it on anything except Wayne. He was incredible. My brother had his eyes bulging out, and my brother kept saying he wanted to talk to Wayne, he’s going to speak to Wayne. At that point, I was 12 and he was 9.
When the concert was over, we went back to speak to Wayne. Weather Report was packing up in the van. They didn’t have road managers and all that. Well, they might have one. I said, “Mr. Shorter, Mr. Shorter.” He looked, he saw these two young kids there, and he was so nice. He came down and said, “Yes?” And he came over to us, and my brother sat there, and he was going to do all the talking—and he couldn’t say a word. He just froze. So I spoke for my brother. I said, “I’m Wallace Roney,(I was 12yrs old myself!) and his name is Antoine (or Tony, we called him), and he loves you. He wants to be a saxophone player.” Wayne looked at him and Wayne said, “You want to play the saxophone, huh.” He said, “Well, first play the clarinet for a year or two years, and then, after that, get one of these.” He pointed to his tenor saxophone. Man, that made an impression on my brother so much, he didn’t know what to do.
The reason why I told that story is, years later, after seeing… We saw Wayne a month after that in Philly, and it was the same band. It was burning. Miles was burning and had opened up the concert!and The Giants Of Jazz with Monk and Buhania and Dizzy and Stitt demolished the show!!! Anyway, years later, I got to know Wayne when we did the Tribute Tour for Miles ! In 1992, they wanted to do a tribute tour to Miles, and the first person to call me was Wayne Shorter. The reason why they’d called me… They’d wanted to get with Miles before, but they never got back to play with Miles again. Miles had passed, and circumstances prevented them from doing that, so they decided they were going to get together, and they wanted me to do it instead of Freddie! I had played with them earlier and I understood the language and things they pioneered, through Miles. The trumpet player had to have played with Miles. And I was the only trumpet player that played with Miles. Miles didn’t like a lot of the trumpet players out there, that was important!!!
So before we started, Wayne called me. Tony had already let me know that this was going to happen. Actually, I had gotten a message from somebody before…I don’t even know where that came from. Anyway, once we solidified it, Wayne Shorter called me, and we became like best friends immediately. We got together at the rehearsal, and we started playing together and we started joking together. It was so weird. It was like a person I knew all my… Like we were brothers. I appreciated that, and every town we would go in, me and him would walk the town. Every town, every place, we’d get off the plane, we’d wait a couple of hours, he’d say, “Let’s take a walk,” and we’d walk as much as we can.
So as Wayne and I developed a beautiful relationship, I was telling my brother about it, who idolizes Wayne still. Finally it got to a point where I was going to Wayne’s house a lot and we’d hang out. Just watch TV… Or crack jokes or eat, Herbie would come by and we all hang!!! Of course we talked music too!!! It got so bad, I almost was living there! I guess Ana Maria was like, “When is Wallace coming now?” So one day I took my brother over to see his idol in his house. And Antoine was cool. He had been talking to Wayne on the phone by this point. But he got over to Wayne’s house, and he started talking, and he started talking about saxophones. Wayne pulled out this new horn he’d just gotten, and he started playing. When he started playing, my brother’s mouth just dropped and froze. Wayne said, “What do you think this sounds like next to this one?” My brother never said a word! He went back to that little kid at 9 years old, and wouldn’t say a word! The funny thing about it was, Wayne kind of chuckled. Wayne realized what… He was beautiful about it. So Wayne talked to him, at him, through me, and Antoine just sat there until we left the house. When we left the house, Antoine said, “that was Wayne Shorter.” Oh, it was so funny. He went right back to 9 years old.
TP: What was it like for you when you first played for Miles? I get the sense your response was always something like you belonged there.
Roney: Yeah. But, I don’t know why.
TP: But you had an inner confidence.
Roney: You know what? It was just, to me, comfortable. I don’t know why. It was just comfortable. Now, there may have been a lot of times when I could have been scared. Or not scared. What did Ray Leonard say? “I’m concerned.” I like that, because as boxers, we get in there, and you’re…you’re not ‘scared’ but you can say ‘concerned.’ There’s been times I’m on the bandstand, especially when I first came to New York… I wasn’t extroverted. I was always more introverted. I might not take a lot of stuff if people say something to my face. But I have a healthy respect for the music and musicians, and people.
But when I first went to Miles’ house, he opened the door, and the first thing he said to me was, “I never liked Brownie—Clifford Brown.” That’s the first thing he said. “Not that I was jealous. He was a nice enough guy. I just didn’t think he played as good as everybody said. Him and Max played fast all the time because he couldn’t swing.” Then he said, “Max stopped swinging when he left Bird.” That’s the first thing he said when I walked in the house, and I was like… I heard him. And I loved Clifford Brown. I loved Miles more. But I loved Clifford Brown. But I was thinking to myself: You know, this is my idol; this is the master of music that even Clifford Brown had to look at at some point. Now Clifford’s gone; Miles is still here. I want to understand what this man is saying. I want to understand how to take these notes, these phrases, these statements, and make them more than a formula or an approach. How do you get from here to here and effect the whole music? Not just the music but someone’s emotion with the music. He’ll play a note or he’ll play a phrase, and it will be perfectly right, but it will affect the whole atmosphere ! You can say it was polytonality, or it’s rhythmically this, or whatever you want to say—and it will be correct. But what’s in his mind. And I was hearing melodically, that way melodically.
So, man, when he said that, I was like, “Yes, sir.” We sat down, and I remember he talked to me, told me I remind him of himself, gave me a horn and he said, “Play this.” I just played. He probably heard a lot of him in me, of course. Then he gave another horn, and he said, “Play that.” So yeah, I guess I didn’t feel concerned enough that it would have hindered me from playing. Or whatever it is. He heard something in me, and I appreciated it.
TP: Let’s go back to addressing this body of music, and examining it, to being able to perform it.
Roney: Well, you’ve got to examine it, because you’ve got to know what you’re doing. If you don’t, then you’ll be hitting and missing. So the examining part is… But after you understand what you’re doing, you have to flow. You have to be in tune with yourself. In other words, when I play, I play like I talk. If I answer your question by going, “How can I say this grammatically to make it work?” I let it flow, because it’s natural. And if it comes out awkward, it comes out awkward with a flow. You know what I mean more than if I say, “I am going to be as concise with my interpretation of how I process this music.” You see what I mean? I can say it more elegantly if I ”
So you have to do both. I learned from Miles that he was a great student of the music. He definitely was theoretically sound, or even better than that, innovative, because he was always questioning and pushing the boundaries of, If you can do this, what if we did this. With or without breaking the rules, but maybe trying to stretch it and twist it or adding to it, recovering it. So he was that kind of guy.
TP: Did he talk to you about Wayne?:
Roney: Yes, he did talk to me about Wayne. He talked to me about Wayne, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Prez and Hawk. He talked about them the most. He also talked about Hank Mobley and a lot of other guys he didn’t like. I heard everything.
TP: What did he say about Wayne?
Roney: He loved Wayne. He thought Wayne was amazing. He thought Wayne was the next after Trane. And when he said “the next, after” he didn’t mean it as a putdown. He meant after Trane, he couldn’t handle more saxophone players, because they all were playing in a earlier that Trane had gone well past and taken further. After that you don’t want to hear anyone play stuff that they had already surpassed , because Trane had already beyond that and more. It took a long time until the advent of Wayne Shorter, and Wayne Shorter was the next one that played in a way that Miles said, “Yeah, He picking up right there, he’s going right where Trane is, he’s starting right there.” They’re sharing ideas… He loved him. There’s other saxophone players he would say either they were playing licks, or they would play these things that proved to other saxophone players that they knew how to play this thing. He called it “duty playing.” He said he hated it. Wayne didn’t play like that. Trane didn’t play like that. Bird didn’t play like that. They can hear in between the notes!
TP: It’s my understanding that this configuration is your quartet, with Lenny White on drums, Buster Williams on bass, and Victor Gould on piano, and also an orchestra.
Roney: Yes. Steve Turre is with me. Mike Lee is on tenor. I’ve got other people with me, too. Steve takes a solo on one piece.
TP: How often have you performed the piece now?
Roney: We did three nights at the Jazz Standard, and we did it at Poussin Rouge, and we did at the Drom, and last week at Marcus Garvey Park—so six times.
TP: Has it evolved?
Roney: Oh, yes, it’s evolved. It’s a hard piece. A lot of things that didn’t get played are being played, and then we’re adding more things to it that were written that we couldn’t add at the time because we just tried to get it done. Parts that might have been left out. So yes, it has evolved. And still evolving!
TP: How many pieces are there?
Roney: Four pieces.
TP: Are they a suite or separate pieces?
Roney: Separate pieces.
TP: Having now lived with this music for a while, can you break down why these pieces are so important, and what they contribute to the creative music community now?
Roney: They are important because, again, it was written at the time, in one of the most important periods, or an important evolutionary period in music and human life that has not been surpassed yet. A Revolution in life and music and culture that still hasn’t been honored! The music has taken different directions. But the evolution and the innovations that happened during that period between 1965 and 1969 are still being misunderstood and explored and unexplored, and not understood, and nobody can really grasp what really happened. I don’t really think those guys… Well, they can individually, but… So this is a moment still that is… Like I said, it’s like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls. The next thing that was hidden and didn’t get there.
The interesting thing about this piece is it’s futuristic. It was written then, and it sounds like it wasn’t written today—it sounds like it was written for maybe 50 years from now. It’s very futuristic, and it was written from Wayne’s mind as a young man. Now you hear Wayne’s pieces, he’s writing from his mind as a wise older master. Now, the difference is: As a wise master, he might not use as many notes to get from point-A to point A+, because he understands that you can do this, or he might have another way of doing things, or he might use a cluster of notes. Back then, he used everything he could think of. But the thing is, it was an optimism with that. So it might have been 100 million notes, but each one of those notes had the energy and optimism in it, and they all meant something, and they all say something. So with that, you still had the same mind of that master, who he is today, but in a younger form.
TP: As far as your own other activity, what other things have you been working on during the last year?
Roney: I’ve never understood that question. “Other things.” There’s never another thing. The thing is a commitment to the music!!! And what you’re doing at the moment is that commitment and the next thing is the thing that evolves out of it.
TP: What was the thing you were doing before this?
Roney: Music !!! Let me tell you why. Because it’s part of me, my band. I don’t do anything else but play! Well, I’ve done all-star bands, but you do all-star bands because they make you do it or you can’t do anything else, or put you in a certain position to have to do it. When I do it, I make the best out of it. I try to make a very creative statement out of what they want. But when they allow me to do this, this is what I do. And this is an extension of what I’ve done last year, five years, ten years ago. It doesn’t stop to me. It’s not another thing. It’s the same thing. It’s the next day. It’s a commitment to playing. So if you ask me that again, I’m just going to say I never understood that. It’s just a commitment to playing.