In terms of the richness of his tone and the fluidity and inventiveness of his phrasing, Wallace Roney — who has died at the age of 59, a victim of the Covid-19 virus — stood somewhere between Booker Little and Ambrose Akinmusire in the lineage of jazz trumpet. And it was a tribute to his prowess that in June 1991, when Miles Davis surprisingly accepted the Montreux Jazz Festival’s invitation to perform the music Gil Evans had written for him in the ’40s and ’50s with a 46-piece orchestra, it was Roney who was chosen to stand alongside the frail featured soloist, taking over his parts when necessary.
The photographs above are some of those I took during the brief rehearsals. Roney’s commitment to the task was as obvious as his feelings for Davis. The success of the concert was more emotional than substantial. The orchestra, conducted by Quincy Jones, was packed with great musicians and did a fine job, but Davis’s diminished powers were evident. Roney’s help was vital to ensure that the great man was not embarrassed, and in his own solos, such as that on “The Duke”, he managed to pay appropriate homage to the genius alongside him while retaining his own character. Eventually, too, Davis was able to gather the strength and confidence to do himself something close to justice, and you’d have to think Roney’s close support had something to do with that. Those of us in the audience were simply astonished and profoundly grateful to have been given the chance to hear much-loved music that we never imagined we’d hear Miles play live.
A few years earlier at the Royal Albert Hall I’d seen Roney taking the place of Freddie Hubbard in VSOP, as the near-reunion of Davis’s second great quintet was called, alongside Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. He shone there, too. But it was with Tony Williams’s own quintet in the late ’80s that he found what I think of as his perfect setting. With Bill Pierce on soprano and tenor saxophones, Mulgrew Miller on piano and Ira Coleman on double bass, playing Williams’s fine compositions (like “Geo Rose”) in a series of fine albums for Blue Note, this group offered a perfect restatement of what might be called post-hard bop, pre-fusion values. When I saw them at the Jazz Café in London, I was thrilled not only to see and hear the great Williams not only playing acoustic music again but surrounding himself with proper heavyweights, of whom Wallace Roney was unquestionably one.