Pax Wallace: The He(art) of the Ballad


Pax Wallace photo courtesy of the artist


Steve “Pax” Wallace is a composer, pianist, and an intrepid musical adventurer. Inspired by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Ralph Towner, Kenny Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, and Chick Corea, Wallace marries influence and curiosity into his compositions. “A lot of my music sounds like it’s written by different people because every composition has its own individual identity. I try to be of service to that composition. Sometimes I don’t have an adequate vocabulary to complete a composition, so I table it and come back to it later, sometimes years later. Composition is an act of musical inquiry.” While being aware of and loving the traditions of his predecessors, he doesn’t feel a strong desire to replicate them in his compositions. “I have always been drawn into a set of personal aesthetics and criterion drawn from odd sources.” 

Wallace’s musical training began in Charlotte, North Carolina, under the tutelage of his high school bandleader Bill Hanna. George Wilson “Bill” Hanna was known as the “Godfather of Charlotte jazz.” He taught for 30 years in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, starting in 1960, and went on to teach in a community college in the area. This is where Wallace encountered him. Hanna invited jazz greats from the Charlotte scene to be sectional leaders and ringers for their high school jazz band, presenting Wallace with unique opportunities such as sitting in with the likes of William “Jazz” Gillum and playing Marian McPartland’s charts with her.

Wallace began playing sax, and then on to the cello so he could continue learning in Hanna’s orchestra class. Eventually, he switched to the piano as a tool to better explore harmony, and to become a songwriter. “I see piano as a doorway and opening into something better. A higher ground.”

After a brief interval in Indiana influenced by studies with David Baker’s jazz courses, Wallace hitchhiked to Seattle in 1981 and began attending Cornish College of the Arts in the autumn of that year. He studied jazz composition and keyboards with the notaries who were teaching there at the time, including Art Lande, Gary Peacock, and Jim Knapp, who was 10 years into what would be a 45-year tenure at Cornish and was especially influential to Wallace. Wallace contributed a composition to Knapp, which became the title track of the Jim Knapp Orchestra’s record On Going Home, released in 1999 on Sea Breeze Jazz.

The art of creating ballads can be an elusive and challenging endeavor, often requiring a unique approach for it to be best heard and understood. “Every day it’s a ‘different kind of failure’” says Wallace, quoting T.S. Eliot. “With a ballad, you have to reach to another part of yourself where you are not playing so much as channeling.” And for Wallace, playing ballads presents somewhat of a litmus test for jazz musicians because they are so difficult to accomplish well. “It’s hard to create a beautiful ballad because the stuff you practice doesn’t always apply straight across. To play a ballad, it is more about space and your ability to manage the space.”

In 1998, Wallace recorded his album Language Arts, released on Origin Records. On it, he’s joined by Boston drummer, Bob Moses, and tenor sax Charles Pillow along with Seattle’s own Knapp and Chuck Bergeron on bass, whom Wallace co-produced the record with. Some of the live tracks were also recorded at the missed but not forgotten Tula’s Jazz Club. In a review for All About Jazz, Jason West, remarked that the album is like “contemplating simultaneously a myriad of forgotten places, faces, and sounds.” 

From 1999 to 2021, Wallace performed abroad in Europe, living first in Heidelberg, Germany until settling in Copenhagen for six years. After more than 20 years, Wallace returned to the PNW and is currently living and performing on Whidbey Island and around the greater Northwest. This month, Wallace performs original compositions at Stage 7 Pianos in Kirkland on August 19, joined by Jay Thomas (horns), Kelley Johnson (vocals), Xavier Lecouturier (drums), and Scott Swanberg (bass). Tickets at stage7pianos.com/stage7piano-events.


Posted on

July 28, 2023