A Take Five Elegy: Wallace Roney, Ellis Marsalis, Bill Withers, Bucky Pizzarelli and Mike Longo

Apr 6, 2020

We’ve been losing some of our heroes. Their music lives on.

Bill Withers on Beat Club, 1972

Many of us, on learning of the death of Bill Withers, sought solace in his landmark album Live at Carnegie Hall. Precisely six weeks after performing that concert, Withers and his band entered a television studio in Bremen, Germany to tape a half-hour special for the program Beat Club. 

There’s no studio audience, and Withers was suffering a cold; he seems a little peeved. But I can think of no better testament to the charismatic power and bone-deep musicality he possessed — attributes that stand apart from, yet in dialogue with, his rare gift as a storytelling songwriter.

As on Still Bill and Live at Carnegie Hall, Withers was backed by a crew that had until recently been part of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: Benorce Blackmon on guitar, Ray Jackson on keyboards, Melvin Dunlap on electric bass, and James Gadson on drums. The simmering intensity of their groove throughout this session is nothing short of stunning, from the funky shuffle of “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” to the gospel-R&B strut of “Harlem.” (Three songs in, you’ll find a “Use Me” set at a vicious tempo, a tad slower and a ton gnarlier than the one on Live at Carnegie Hall.) Absolute perfection. (Nate Chinen)

Wallace Roney, “Homage & Acknowledgement (Love Supreme / Filles de Kilimanjaro)”

The forward-thinking, hard-swingin’ trumpeter Wallace Roney pulls out all the stops on No Room For Argument. This album, from 2000, documents his foothold in the tradition and penchant for traveling the outer limits. A master at holding you captive in a groove, Roney enlists help from the incomparable Geri Allen on piano, brother Antoine on saxophone, Buster Williams on bass and Lenny White on drums, among others. They cast a wide net on “Homage & Acknowledgement,” which is dedicated to John Coltrane and Roney’s mentor Miles Davis. (Monifa Brown)

Ellis Marsalis with The Marsalis Family, “Twelve’s It”

Wynton called him his North Star. Branford said: “He poured everything into making us the best of what we could be.” For the rest of us, Ellis Marsalis was a giant whose unwavering commitment to his craft and others endures. His perfection and elegance as a composer shine on this 2003 performance of his staple “Twelve’s It.” At the center of this family affair is love and undeniable swing. Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason join Ellis in a life-affirming performance. (Brown)

Bucky Pizzarelli with Joe Venuti, “String the Blues”

Bucky Pizzarelli left a sprawling body of work on record, all of it worth absorbing. But some sessions stand out — like the one he did in 1974 with violinist Joe Venuti and saxophonist Zoot Sims, for an album called Joe & Zoot & More. “That was the first thing I played last night,” John Pizzarelli told me the morning after his father’s passing. “He does ‘String the Blues,’ playing such flawless accompaniment and beautiful chord solos. It’s so joyous; it’s just romping.” (Chinen)

Mike Longo, “WBGO”

Shortly after the passing of his longtime musical partner Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Mike Longo assembled a formidable group of Dizzy alums for the 1995 tribute record I Miss You John. The lead track is “WBGO,” an easy blues named in our station’s honor, which once again shows Longo in true form as a soulful foundation for a trumpet titan — in this case, Jimmy Owens — while getting his chance to shine as a leader. (Trevor Smith)