Bennie Wallace: Horn Is ‘the Center of My Life’ : The saxophonist hasn’t let his film scoring assignments interfere with his playing.

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You could say that Bennie Wallace has made a smooth transition from the little stage to the big screen. Once known mainly for his swarthy, breathy tenor saxophone tone and his expressive, mainstream-meets-freewheeling interpretations, Wallace has also composed the soundtracks to the two latest Ron Shelton films, “Blaze” and “White Men Can’t Jump.”

Wallace is understandably enamored of writing music for movies. But he says that playing is still his primary focus.

“My horn, trite as it may sound, is the center of my life,” said the Chatanooga, Tenn., native who makes his first Los Angeles appearance in two years Saturday at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City. “Every day I play the saxophone, whether I’m performing or not. That’s something I’ve done since I was 14 and I couldn’t imagine not doing it.”


Even during hectic soundtrack activities Wallace--who, with his wife, moved to Hollywood in 1990--keeps his horn at hand. “In ‘Blaze,’ I played cues constantly,” said Wallace in a soft Southern accent. “Now during ‘White Men,’ when I had to write string parts and we had to record a song with Aretha Franklin, that was a little tight. But during some of the shooting, I went to Europe and did a tour.”

Wallace’s career in writing for film began when Shelton heard the hornman’s late-’80s “Twilight Time” Blue Note Records album and invited Wallace and pianist-singer Dr. John, who appears on the session, to do a few tunes for “Bull Durham.” “We did a version of ‘Try a Little Tenderness,’ which had been on the album, and wrote a new tune called ‘Love Ain’t No Triple Play,’ ” Wallace recalled.

The work on “Bull Durham” led to “Blaze,” which was a considerable challenge since he had done scant writing for strings, save assignments at the University of Tennessee, where he graduated as a clarinet major in the mid-’70s, and for a radio orchestra in Germany.

Wallace taught himself to orchestrate, using insights he’d gathered from his varied experiences as a jazz saxophonist, which had been his occupation since he finished college. He also studied scores of such past giants as Bernard Herrmann (“Citizen Kane,” “Taxi Driver”) and Bronislau Kaper (“Green Dolphin Street,” “Lili”). “I’m just trying to hone the craft,” said Wallace, who is currently negotiating his next scoring deal.

At the Bakery, Wallace will be accompanied by pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist Bill Huntington and drummer Alvin Queen. The program will be composed of classic standards, such as Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” Sue Raney will also be on hand to sing “If I Lose,” from ‘White Men.’ On Monday, Wallace, who also appears Jan. 23 at Harbor College, takes his crew into the studios to make a new album for the Audio Quest label.

Said Wallace: “It’ll be like the old days, an all-acoustic recording with everybody in the same room with no headphones. Real music.”


Critic’s Choice: Guitarist Herb Ellis and his partner, bassist Andy Simpkins, who play tonight and Saturday at Lunaria, could be the next dynamic duo. Heard last week at Maxwell’s by the Sea in Huntington Beach, the pair--sans a drummer--still made their selections pulsate with that rhythmic flow that jazz musicians and their followers call “swing.”

Indeed, everything that Ellis and Simpkins played swung, be it a slow and soulful take of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” a bossa nova-ish version of “America the Beautiful” or a fast, sizzling look at an intricate Charlie Parker blues, “Billie’s Bounce.” And Ellis’ seamless solos, chock full of enterprising ideas, were delightful, always keeping a listener’s attention.