Big Jim Does the Tango for You. From Bennie Wallace, Big Jim’s Tango, 1983
There are too many tenor saxophone players, I suppose. It’s the quintessential jazz instrument, with such a big timbral range – achieved without electricity – and there have been so many great practitioners they constantly inspire newcomers to pick up the horn. Yes, there are plenty of alto players too, new movements in jazz have been mobilised on the alto, and plenty of my favourite players work with it. But there also seem to be more alto players whose sound can be off-putting – too saccharine, or too sour. I’ve never felt comfortable with Jackie McLean, for example and I find Garbarek pretty hit and miss. So it’s maybe safer to stick to the tenor.
Result, there are scads of really very enjoyable tenor players who never quite achieve wider recognition, whatever that may amount to for jazz players. Bennie Wallace is one of those I’m still keen on. His discography is high quality, but not huge. And when I think of his name, it is usually this tune that comes to mind first. It’s a bit like being a minor poet, I guess. A perfectly respectable thing to be, and if you end up with a single fine poem in anthologies after a lifetime’s work, well, that’s better than artistic oblivion isn’t it?
Anyhow, all that aside it’s just a great track, from one of the recordings Wallace made for Enja in the late ’70s and early ’80s. That was when his personal blend of swing-era lines and post-bop, all adorned with a Rollins-like swagger that sometimes almost slipped into caricature, came together. There was a brief signing to Blue Note after that – with a more “commercial” sound on records that highlighted his Southern heritage and featured the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dr John. They were fun, but the earlier sessions wear better.
And this one is best of all partly because of the dream team of Dave Holland and Elvin jones in their sole outing with the saxophonist. He made quite a few recordings with Eddie Gomez on bass who, for all his virtuosity, had a terrible sound in those years, as if playing a rubber band. Dave is more than a relief after those. And he has a great hook-up with Elvin, one that other great players (John Surman, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano) have also benefited from in trio sessions.
That’s well to the fore here, where Jones makes the initial tango rhythm stand to attention, and Holland underscores it, while Wallace states the initial theme. Like quite a bit of Wallace’s stuff it treats a well-known genre with affection, while salting the solo parts with Dolphyesque intervallic leaps, all the while showing his mastery of all the tenor styles from Ben Webster through to Rollins.
No idea who Big Jim was, but his tango must have been quite memorable. The tune does somehow conjure a scene – perhaps a clue to the film composing that Wallace earned his living from after he moved to California in the late 1980s. There were returns to recording at regular intervals, more often focussing on standard repertoire, but this early piece of his own remains hard to resist.
Why the No 51? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.
There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify