Those of us who discovered jazz in the 1990s remember Wallace Roney as the up-and-comer who graduated to being an in-demand leader. He was never part of the “Young Lions,” but came to prominence around the same time. Consequently, many fans always thought of him as “young,” so his death from Covid (at a mere 59 years of age) was deeply upsetting for the jazz world. Yet, before he left, Roney completed his most ambitious project. In a way, Roney brought his career full circle when he premiered a Wayne Shorter orchestral suite originally composed for his mentor, Miles Davis. Sam Osborn & Nick Capezerra documents Roney as he rehearses his band and takes stock of his career in Universe, which screens as part of the 2020 online edition of DOC NYC.
Wayne Shorter might be the only NEA Jazz Master who has also written a science fiction graphic novel. It rather follows that he drew on cosmic inspirations for The Universe Compositions. Miles Davis intended to record them during the era of the “2nd Great Quintet,” but the band broke up and the icon moved onto other styles before the complicated sessions could be arranged. Somehow, the score was considered lost for years, until it was re-discovered in the Library of Congress. Shortly before his death, Davis encouraged Shorter to record the suite and recommended Roney for the trumpet chair.
Roney really was the only true protégé Davis ever took on. That association would be a double-edged sword for Roney. It brought him to the attention of record labels and clubs, but critics constantly compared him to the trumpet icon. Throughout Universe, Roney wrestles with the implications of this legacy, while still paying tribute to Davis.
Osborn & Capezerra shot Universe in a stark black-and-white that, in retrospect, gives the film an eerie, elegiac tone. Roney is very forthcoming on the subjects of music, Miles, and his career. However, he never addresses his late ex-wife, Geri Allen, who was a jazz musician of equal stature. In addition to Roney, we also logically hear a good deal from bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White, who both performed extensively with Davis and Roney (including the approaching Universe concert).
Regardless, the rehearsal sequences are often brutally uncomfortable. Even the musically untrained can tell Shorter’s score is immensely challenging just by looking at it. Roney drives his musicians hard, because time is short before the premiere, so there is actually a fair degree of suspense, whether or not they will be ready.
The Universe Compositions, because it holds tremendous cultural and historical significance.
Universe is a haunting documentary. It is visually striking and it sounds terrific, but it also captures the professional difficulties faced by an enormously talented artist, with pronounced sadness. The entire process of the Universe premiere should have been easier for Roney, but he persevered. The resulting film is a powerful tribute to a great jazz artist. Very highly recommended, Universe screens online, as part of this year’s DOC NYC, through 11/19.