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Latin Jazz Conversations: Wayne Wallace (Part 5)

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An artist generally spends their younger years building their artistic identity; once they know who they are they need to focus upon preserving their legacy. It's an important act that benefits both their current fans and future generations of musicians curious about their work. An insightful artist puts ample attention into creating a significant body of recordings, but they also need to look at the scene around them. A major collection of work will reflect the impact of the individual artist, while also capturing the ingenuity of the musical culture around them. When an artist spends time doing this, they create a major contribution to the musical world that will effect several generations to come.

After spending years establishing himself as a strong performer and writer on the Bay Area Latin Jazz scene, trombonist and composer Wayne Wallace created an avenue to record the depth of the ideas around him. Wallace gained a love of jazz and extensive experience performing on the trombone as a youth during the fifties and sixties in San Francisco. He stretched his musicality through classical studies at San Francisco State University and a busy gig schedule in the pop and jazz worlds that connected him with important mentors like trombonist Julian Preister. He began working steadily on the city's lively Latin music scene in the eighties, eventually finding a gig with legendary timbalero Pete Escovedo. The band employed a number of forward looking young musicians from the Latin music scene, such as percussionist John Santos, pianist Rebeca Mauleón, and many more. Wallace joined with these musicians to form The Machete Ensemble, a cutting edge group that redefined Bay Area Latin Jazz for the next two decades. While teaching in Europe, Wallace saw Irakere perform and knew that he had to delve deeper into Afro-Cuban music and culture. He traveled to Cuba in 1993, studying closely with important Cuban musicians such as trombonist Alvaro Collado, and making deep personal connections with the island's people. Deep studies of master arrangers like Juan Formell and Chucho Valdes strengthened Wallace's writing and he soon became a primary writer on the Bay Area scene. Spirit Nectar Records soon hired Wallace to record as a leader, resulting in two outstanding Latin Jazz releases, Three In Oneand Echoes In Blue. With a clear vision in front of him, Wallace decided to form his own label and produce his next album independantly. Patois Records was born from this idea, and Wallace jumpstarted the label with two stunning releases, Dedicationand The Reckless Search for Beauty. Right away, Wallace stretched Patois Records beyond his own music, signing vocalists Kat Parra and Alexa Weber Morales onto the label. Over the next ten years, Wallace worked dilligently to create a steady stream of recordings, and in 2010, his album ¡Bien Bien!received a Grammy nomination in the Latin Jazz category. With a solid catalog of recordings under his belt and national recognition for his work, Wallace has insured the longevity of his music and the scene around him.

Wallace's work with Patois Records has brought a wealth of his composition into the forefront, documenting his growth as an artist and bandleader. At the same time, he has traveled the extra mile, going to great lengths to document the evolution of the Bay Area Latin Jazz sound over the past ten years. In the first part of our interview with Wallace, we looked at his exposure to jazz at a young age, his move towards professional performance, and the influence of San Francisco's music scene. We dug into his classical trombone studies, his time playing pop music, and important local mentors during the second piece of our conversation. The third part of our discussion examined Wallace's gig with Pete Escovedo, the creation of The Machete Ensemble, and his discovery of Irakere. In the fourth piece of our interview, we talked about his travels to Cuba, its effect upon his writing style, and his first recordings as a leader. Today, we discuss the establishment of Patois Records, the wide reach of the label, and Wallace's current success.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: How did your work as a leader evolve into Patois Records?

WAYNE WALLACE: I had been working with Rhythm and Rhyme, that large aggregation that had done “Digging Up The Roots" in 1993. We'd done gigs here and there—we played Yoshi's when it was on Claremont Street, Pete Escovedo's club, and the Monterey Jazz Festival. I suffer from the affliction of putting together a band that is so big, it can never work any place—I'm a recovering big band addict! I'm down to a quintet now, but every once in a while, I revert back to the large band format.

At the end of 2005, I decided that I wanted to start my own record label. I just said, “I'm going to do this." and I went for it. I guess when you put things out in the universe, things happen. So I said, “I'm going to do a record; I'm going to actively do it. I'm not thinking about it, I'm going to do it and I'm going to start a record label. I'm not going to ask anyone to do anything for me; I'm just going to do it myself. So I went ahead and I started planning all the music for the record The Reckless Search for Beauty.

About three months into my pre-production, Ray Lucas called me. He had stopped Spirit Nectar Records in 2003 due to his wife's health issues. She eventually passed away to cancer about the same time that Paul Van Wageningen's first wife Carmen passed away to cancer. Ray told me that he wanted to do a record that honored his late wife, Paul's late wife Carmen, and Spirit Nectar Records. He asked if I'd be interested in helping with the project. I said, “Sure, count me in, I'm there." He said, “Good, the only thing that I ask you to do is I'd like you to record two compositions—one by John Coltrane and one by McCoy Tyner and I get to play on them. The rest of the tunes can be your tunes or whatever you want." I said, “Of course, whatever you want to do." He said, “Can we have people that have been on the label before? I'd like have Ron Stallings, Andrea Brachfeld, and all those folks." I said, “Sure, I'll make the phone calls."

So I made the phone calls and got everyone together. When I talked to Ray, he said, “I'll pay for all the musicians, I'll pay for the manufacturing and distribution, and you get to have it." I said, “What?" He said, “You get to have the record." So all of a sudden, I have two records coming out at the same time. It's about that same time, Kat Parra contacted me about working on her first record. So from nothing, we had three records in the hopper, and we were in the studio every other day working on stuff, mixing and recording. Dedicationand The Reckless Search for Beautycame out and then it was just this explosion of stuff, where we've had records every year now.

I try to look at things big picture and look at the legacy, which is why on my records I've included Pete Escovedo, Bobi, John Santos, Julian Priester, and everyone that has been a part of my life. I wouldn't be at this point without these people, so I always try to look back at that and affirm those connections and those roots.

Ray Lucas was an incredibly important part of me being where I'm at now. He passed away in 2010. I made a point to stay in contact with him even when he was very sick. He suffered from emphysema, and he couldn't leave the house. But I'd go visit him and bring the latest recordings. Even if he couldn't make it, I'd invite him to all the gigs. He was one of those guys who thoroughly loved the spirit of the sixties—Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane. All he ever did was talk about Coltrane; that's all he ever wanted to talk about. That record Dedicationis all about that energy.

LJC: It seemed like that was a real blowing session . . .

WW: Yea, and in the true spirit of it, that's what it really was. I tried to arrange it with that in mind so that people could just be who they were.

LJC: You've got such a wide range of people on there, from the Latin Jazz community and beyond.

WW: That's what Spirit Nectar Records was about for Ray. So we wanted to try to make it like that. He was there at the sessions too, that was the great thing about it. He was really, really happy just to sit there and see the music unfold.

LJC: It was an interesting contrast to have those two albums at the same time—The Reckless Search for Beautyhad that funky edge while Dedicationwas more jazz. It was almost like two sides to your personality.

WW: Yea, The Reckless Search for Beautywas the record that I knew I couldn't make on the first two records. As a first time artist, I felt like I had to do something that said this is my foundation. I wanted Echoes In Blueand Three In Oneto go that way. I put a lot of thought into it—I knew that I could do funk or I could do R 'n B. I thought, “No, people know me as a Latin Jazz musician, let's just affirm that for two records." On the third record, I knew that I could branch out.

LJC: There's a lot of people starting record labels to produce their own material, but one of the things that seems unique about Patois is that you've produced albums for a number of people. What inspired you to bring more artists onto the label?

WW: I wanted it to be almost like the loft jazz scene, kind of like creating a collective. We've talked about that over the years. If we put our collective strength together, we can make more happen than just individually putting out records.

From the music business side, publishing companies or people that license music don't take record companies seriously until they have a catalog of at least ten titles. I was thinking that if any one of us places a song, it makes the whole thing better. Through our efforts of working together, people have ended up placing things on compilations. We've got one in Korea, one in Japan, and licensing is starting to happen for everyone. The concept was to keep our integrity musically, but also get it so people could earn some money and make more records.

It's almost like the Concord Records model. If Carl Jefferson wanted to record an artist, he would call them, pay them double scale, do the recording in one day, and then print two thousand copies. He would wait for the two thousand copies to sell and then order another two thousand copies. He would follow that model all the way through the label's life. Eventually what he ended up having was a valuable category that even included people like Rosemary Clooney, Mel Torme, and Ray Charles. It's opposite of the pop music paradigm where you need a hit record. You want to build catalog, you want to show some stability, and put out quality things that will last over time. Hopefully the catalog will keep selling for ten years down the line. Our first recording was 2000; we're still doing digital sales and album sales off of Three In Oneand Echoes In Blue. That's my goal—create something of quality. All of the artists that we've signed to the label are doing quality work. We're hoping that it just extends and works for all of us collectively.

LJC: You've gained quite a bit of notoriety over the past year with recognition in Downbeat, a Grammy nomination for ¡Bien Bien!, and more—how has that effected your career?

WW: It's made everything really busy. Partially tongue in cheek and partially seriously. My normal workload involves teaching at San Jose State University and at The Jazzschool. The activity that is going on behind the Grammys and everything else has exponentially tripled everything. I'm getting up early in the morning doing e-mails and staying connected with people, blogging, and writing music. I've got a bunch of projects on the burner that are moving forward and I'm actually trying to write for.

Of course you submit recordings, but we did not expect this Grammy nomination. ¡Bien Bien!was very successful—I think that it stayed on the jazz/world music charts for 49 weeks in a row. It made me stop and think, “What did we do right?" A lot of people have told me that whenever they heard ¡Bien Bien!, it just made them feel good and feel happy. There was a joy in the music. So I thought, “O.K., it's a visceral component to what we've done here." The record captures what we do live as a quintet; it's just the energy that we get when we play. So when we did To Hear From There, I really wanted to focus on that and highlight the individual talents of the musicians. This seems to have resonated with disc jockeys, writers, and people who know nothing about Latin Jazz.

If there is a change from what it was before the Grammy nomination, it seems like it has been highlighted a magnified that people who maybe had only marginally heard of me or the group are saying, “Oh, yes." People that had never heard of us are being turned onto us. There seems to be an entree to the music; there seems to be something familiar to what we're doing within our arrangements and music that resonates with people. Even if they know nothing about Latin Jazz.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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