Wallace Roney builds his bands from the drums up. One of jazz's most formidable trumpeters since a formative run with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the mid-1980s, he returns to the Bay Area with a quintet featuring trap set powerhouse Lenny White, playing a two-night run at Yoshi's Jan. 20-21 and a concert Jan. 22 at Kuumbwa.
"I played with some of the greatest drummers: Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey," said Roney, 55. "I mean, in their bands, not just for a night.
"I loved Lenny's playing from 'Bitches Brew' and 'Red Clay,' " Roney adds, naming seminal albums by Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, respectively. "He first played in my band in the mid-'90s, but I'd known him for years before that, from when he used to come see me with Tony Williams."
White has recorded with Roney several times over the past two decades, from the trumpeter's acclaimed 1996 album "Village" (Warner Bros.) to 2015's "In an Ambient Way" (Chesky), a project the trumpeter spearheaded with saxophonist-arranger Bob Belden, reinterpreting the seminal 1969 Miles Davis album "In a Silent Way."
A pivotal figure who helped shape the transition from the acoustic post-bop era to the rise of jazz-rock fusion in the late 1960s, White "is the keeper of the true legacy that starts with Klook and Philly and Max," Roney said, referring to pioneering modern jazz drummers Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach. "He has all of them in his playing. He's taking the music forward without ignoring that history. He's an amazing player."
Roney keeps the tradition moving forward himself, both by building on the vast foundation laid by Miles Davis and by bringing along young musicians much like veteran masters nurtured him early in his career. His band features bassist Rashaan Carter, saxophonist Ben Solomon and pianist Anthony Wonsey, who first gained attention in Roney's band two decades ago.
"The first jazz concert I saw in my life was Tony Williams at the Jazz Showcase with Wallace and Mulgrew Miller, Billy Pierce and Ira Coleman," said Wonsey, 43, who was born and raised in Chicago. "I'm still in awe. Out of all the musicians I've played with, Wallace is the real deal, the only trumpet player who played with Miles and is part of the direct lineage of the masters."
In the eyes of some jazz critics, Roney's stylistic debt to Davis is a check mark against him. But like his contemporaries and Jazz Messengers trumpet predecessors Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard, he's very much his own man. His sound has a harder gleam than Davis'. And where some trumpeters fasten on to a specific point in Davis' career, particularly the mid-1960s quintet powered by Tony Williams, Roney draws from every inch of Miles.
"He was my idol and I loved every aspect of his work, from his years with Bird until he died," Roney said, referring to bebop patriarch Charlie "Bird" Parker.
Fascinated by the electronic textures that Davis explored in an increasingly volatile series of recordings from 1968's "Filles de Kilimanjaro" to 1972's controversial "On the Corner" (it was largely panned on its release), he's honed a lapidary approach that's uncovered sonic territory sometimes glimpsed on early Weather Report sessions.
As an artist who thinks in terms of evolution rather than revolution, Roney looks for young players who also want to build on the jazz tradition. His latest find is Solomon, a fiery tenor saxophonist who had hardly reached legal drinking age when he first recorded with Roney on 2013's "Understanding" (High Note).
"He's the best young tenor player in the world," Roney said. "After Wayne Shorter, it's Ben Solomon. He thinks like Wayne but with Coltrane's approach, or like Trane with Wayne's thoughts as well. We're all knocked out by him. It's a beautiful thing to watch Lenny and Ben play off of each other, and then Wonsey sparkle all that magic, and I just blow right on top of it."
Roney's most ambitious project is a work in progress focusing on orchestral music by Shorter that will likely require the support of a major institution. He got close to the saxophonist-composer while holding down the trumpeter chair on an early 1990s tour with Shorter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter that produced the Grammy Award-winning album "A Tribute to Miles" (which opens and closes with tracks recorded live at the Berkeley Community Theatre).
"Wayne gave me three pieces he wrote in the late 1960s for an orchestral big band," Roney says. "No one's ever going to write like this again. It's the holy grail, the next step, and we can't get anybody to record it."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at email@example.com.