Marching his octet out on to the stage in a replication of a New Orleans parade Byron Wallen was ready to communicate excitement from the word go!
Providing a helpful and at times humorous commentary to each of the pieces that made up his suite of tributes to a selection of trumpet greats, personal favourites and influences, ranging from Louis Armstrong to Woody Shaw, to name but two, Wallen proved himself as engaging a showman as he is brilliant trumpeter, composer and bandleader and though some of his themes didn't, in my mind, immediately relate convincingly to their dedicatee they constituted damn good music in themselves, that should transfer well to disc and stand the test of time.
With a team of first class musicians at his disposal Byron had the wherewithal to produce precision ensemble work and present soloists of character and ability. As well as his own warm and vibrant contribution on open horn, Wallen was able to draw on the talents of Tony Kofi, who played some terrific baritone sax in a hard-edged way not unlike Pepper Adams, and Julian Siegel who played a better than average post-Coltrane tenor and some luxuriant bass clarinet in both solo and ensemble passages. The remaining horns and reeds were Finn Peters on flute and Trevor Mires on trombone while Larry Bartley again filled the bass chair and Tom Skinner coaxed every kind of rhythmic configuration out of his kit. On piano and keys was Nick Ramm whose prelude to the Clifford Brown tribute Golden Brown brought a note of chamber music refinement to the general ebullience of the proceedings.
There were many highlights but probably the most impressive solo came from Wallen himself when in his tribute to Miles Davis, Five Miles of Shadow, he seemed to reflect all aspects of Davis' work from Birth of the Cool via Sketches of Spain to Amandla without actually plagiarising any of the great man's licks. As he said in his introduction his purpose in creating his suite was not to copy but to capture the ethos of his chosen "Kings".
This was an absolutely top notch concert of music that no-one could mistake as anything other than jazz of the highest quality, and if Wallen and his men are billed to appear anywhere near you I urge you to seek them out.
~ JOHN GEGGIE & MARK DRESSER (Jazz Views)
For trumpeter Byron Wallen the song may be supreme but the audience can change it all. Received wisdom says that rehearsals as well as time devoted to composing are a major part of a jazz musician's life. Bands and songbooks can only evolve in earnest after hours spent either in a dim lit practice room or on a cramped stage.
However, other activities eat into an improvising musician's schedule these days, and one of the most time-consuming - and most important - is form-filling. Applications for funding in the form of grants, awards or even entry into competitions are certainly on the mind of Byron Wallen…
When Byron Wallen won the Innovation category of last year's BBC Jazz Awards, it wasn't a token gesture – he'd already earned his stripes with many exciting projects: the Tarot Suite; the quartet Indigo, with Tony Kofi; and his genre-busting duos with Cleveland Watkiss.
Now Wallen has come up with yet another winner, a six-piece jazz 'orchestra' with a big sound, and an expansive repertoire inspired by the work of poet Langston Hughes. Wallen's trick is to keep the rhythm section mean and lean – Tom Skinner on drums and Larry Bartley on bass – while making the most of his front line: Tony Kofi (baritone sax), Trevor Mires (trombone) and Finn Peters (flute), alongside his own flugelhorn.
"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?" ~ Langston Hughes, 1951
Compositions such as Symphonic Language and Crane on the Nest show his writing at its most effective – widely spaced chords for the ensemble, with dramatic use of drums and bass, and free-flowing solos. Having established a particular set of tone colours there's freedom to improvise within the framework of Wallen's clever scores.
In Ask Your Mama, Wallen reads out Hughes' poem, which asks: 'What happens to a dream deferred?' The band provides a musical answer. Wallen's speaking voice is classless and clear, keeping his combination of poetry and jazz away from tweeness or incoherent hipness. The Big Sea and Essence of an Emotion are tone poems, with literary starting points. They feature little or no improvisation, but create a rich sound that's rooted in the jazz tradition.
An entertaining slow blues gives Mires a chance to shine on trombone; Bartley has a long feature on Crane on the Nest; and Skinner is his customary unpredictable and exuberant self on the swaggering Harlem funk of Which Is I. But all the musicians sound great within Wallen's ingenious charts. The band closes with Not Yet Returning, another tone poem, short and bittersweet.
~ JOHN L. WALTERS (Saturday May 8, 2004 The Guardian)