And the heat goes on, with the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet. The famed Bay Area group played on Sunday, July 16, to a swelteringly hot and packed Dinkelspiel Auditorium, as part of Stanford’s summer Jazz Festival. The heat helped egg Wallace and his players on, as they hammered, pounded and funked their way through nine compositions in a blazing 80 minutes — no flash, no congestion, just pure groovy action.
Sunday’s concert marked a welcome reunion for the Wallace Quintet. Ever since Wallace began a tenured teaching position at Indiana University’s jazz studies program in 2013, there have been fewer chances for Bay Area jazz fans to hear the Grammy Award-nominated quintet. But Sunday night, they picked up right where they left off, displaying how much they have to teach us about breaking musical boundaries and opening our ears to new sounds.
Wallace, a 6-foot-plus trombonist, cuts an imposing figure onstage. He prowls and stalks the stage, inspecting and delighting in the groove that forms before our very eyes, piece by piece. He nods his head to us, telling us with his eyes what we’re thinking: “Yeah, I know. It’s tight.”
The rest of his players — Murray Low’s piano, Michael Spiro’s percussion, Colin Douglas’ drums, and David Belove’s bass — are just as imposing, but more out of their effortless mastery of their instruments. Even when they reach for rags to wipe the sweat off their foreheads, it’s more of a battle against the stage lights’ punishing heat, rather than breaking a sweat over the music.
Even though Wallace’s music is eminently danceable, no one did, so we did the next best thing: a symphony of fans. The room pulsed as an undulating sea of these guitar-shaped Stanford Jazz fans swayed up and down, silently backing the quintet’s flawless rhythm. Wallace was bemused; he said it reminded him of los abanicos (flamenco fans) that female dancers use as a tool in their arsenal of cool erotics.
Each player is hypnotically locked in to the master groove. At the start of Tito Puente’s “Philadelphia Mambo,” Low trades atonal piano chords in restless yet tight harmony with Douglas’ funky drums. They are on the same staggering wavelength. On “As Cores da Menina,” Michael Spiro wows with his solo on the repinique, a Brazillian drum. If the funk is within Belove’s bass, then the samba is within Spiro, since his spitfire snaps and bops just about burn a hole through the stage floor from the sheer speed and friction of his hands.
But it’s not all dancers’ pleasure; melancholy creeps in, just a bit, in a gripping bluesy number. Wallace pulls out the mute and stages a wordless melodrama that has the audience nodding in painful agreement to every cracking note. “We feel,” we say to Wallace’s bone on the verge of tears, “we’ve been there.” Snatches of “In a Sentimental Mood” — Duke Ellington’s achingly perfect ballad — sneak out of Wallace, providing familiar emotion in an unfamiliar, skewed new way. When Low’s piano takes over, I felt transported to the Chinese restaurant in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” where the heart of Shirley MacLaine’s Fran is broken by her unfeeling beast of a boss. Each player (Spiro de-sweating himself with a rag, out of both nervousness and emotional exhaustion) adds something to this specific, vivid musical place. It’s like you’ve just broken up with someone as you stagger out a bar, humiliated, very buzzed, down a lonely 1.a.m. street.
The most distinctive element of Wallace’s music — its combination of different musical traditions from across the African and Latin diasporas — was on display in the closer, one hell of a mashup of Miles Davis’ “So What” and Romberg and Hammerstein’s “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” This vaguely witchy performance combines a staggering number of genres and sounds: It rocks, the beat has a Parliament-Funkadelic feel, Low lapses into salsa vamps, all with a fine smoothness. As the players whip themselves up into a frenzy, there is a frantic, heat-induced gallop to the finish line of a performance where the floor feels as though it’s rising with each new modulation.
By the time Belove returns to the familiar “So What” bass line, the audience can’t help but laugh; it seems so simple compared with the journey we’ve taken, yet so right. Wallace and company teach us a welcome lesson in the benefits of having a worldly ear. An ear attuned to the rich rhythms and melodies that exist across borders. And the importance of breaking those borders, to access the soulful reservoirs of those beats. That’s the spirit of jazz, which the Quintet embodies to a T.