The Composer's Roots
By Harvey Pekar
NOVEMBER 1, 1999: Listen back-to-back to a dozen of the many albums on which pianist Cedar Walton has appeared since the late Fifties, and you come away wondering if the 65-year-old, Dallas-born jazzman has played so well for so long that he's being taken for granted. After all, Walton doesn't rely on pet licks or pyrotechnical display -- although he has excellent technique; he invents all the time, and makes his always imaginative work fit into the context of whatever he's playing. Sound, solid, inspired. But in the spotlight?
Nevertheless, Walton is one of the most universally respected jazz pianists active today, having played in the bands of Lou Donaldson, Kenny Dorham, J.J. Johnson, Art Farmer, and Art Blakey, and recorded with Freddie Hubbard, John Coltrane, and Joe Henderson. Since working with enchantress Abbey Lincoln from 1965-66, Walton has also been much in demand to accompany singers. And he's made numerous appearances as a leader with bands including trumpeters Dorham and Blue Mitchell, tenor saxophonists Hank Mobley, Clifford Jordan, and George Coleman, bassists Ron Carter and Richard Davis, and drummers Billy Higgins and Jack DeJohnette, among other luminaries.
As a player, Walton's a post-bopper whose solos can be pensive and exciting -- often at the same time. In terms of consistency, lyricism, and tastefulness, he recalls Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. Walton always seems to know what's appropriate. In addition to his ability as an instrumentalist, Walton has quietly amassed an impressive body of original compositions, the Koch label having issued a CD full of them earlier this year, You May Never Know, by vocalist Diane Witherspoon with lyrics by John and Paula Hackett. For over six decades, Walton has worked lovingly on his craft.
Like most musicians of his caliber, he started young, beginning to noodle on the piano by the time he was six or seven. His mother taught piano.
"I started playing by ear," remembers Walton, "and my mother said, "You better learn to read.'"
Dutifully, he did. At Lincoln High School, Walton began playing the clarinet in the marching band, which was led by J.K. Miller, who had worked as a jazz trumpeter. When the football season wasn't in full swing, the pianist recalls Miller leading the students through the music of jazz giants such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Count Basie. Later, as a teenager, Walton took note of some of the great performers that came through Dallas.
"I used to see posters for Billy Eckstine appearances, and I had an autograph collection that included Marian Anderson, Eckstine, Duke Ellington, and Lena Horne," says Walton, who began playing professionally while still enrolled in high school. "We were jazz musicians, but we had to play a rhythm & blues style. I can remember playing in a shuffle rhythm so people could dance."
Around this same time, Walton was also listening to live radio performances by some of the major big bands and pianists Nat Cole, Art Tatum, Austin-born Teddy Wilson, and Erroll Garner. Before long, he too would be working with some fine musicians.
"I played at a bar called Pappy's Showland with baritone saxman Leroy Cooper, who was with Ray Charles for so long. I worked a lot with Fathead Newman [also a Charles mainstay]. Musically, he was a generation ahead of me."
Asked about his formative years in Dallas, and the fact that Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, and Prince Lasha all came out of the Fort Worth scene, the name Red Connor, a legendary tenorman who is supposed to have been a free jazz player and to have influenced them, comes up.
"I always thought of Red as a Dallasite," affirms Walton. "He was a great sax player. I used to hear him in the park jamming with Fathead and Ike Steen. In those days, he sounded normal to me, though; he played bop."
This coincided with where Walton was musically, as he tried to absorb the latest records by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, citing Art Tatum and Bud Powell as his primary influences in those days. Following high school, young Walton attended Dillard College in New Orleans for a year, where Ellis Marsalis was one of his classmates. Soon after, he transferred to the University of Denver, where he began to study composition seriously.
While in Colorado, Walton met and played with a number of jazz notables, including Bird, and it was this that probably had something to do with the pianist's decision to move to New York in 1955. From the start, Walton found living in the Big Apple a heady experience. He performed everywhere, sitting in, making rehearsals, and doing small club dates whenever he got the chance. It didn't last long, though; that year, Walton was drafted.
Spending 1956-58 in the Army, Walton was stationed first at Fort Dix, where he met tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and later in Germany. As a member of the Special Services, he was able to play with several good jazzmen, including Eddie Harris, with whom the pianist later recorded. In fact, Harris made his best albums with Walton, e. g., The Tender Storm. Most notable of all, it was while in the service that Walton had a chance to sit in with Duke Ellington's band.
"As he was leaving," recounts Walton, "Duke said, "Now you go easy on those keys young man.' Then, after he came back, he said, "I thought I told you to go easy on those keys.' It was his way of complimenting me."
After leaving the government's employ, Walton quickly re-established himself in New York, working in the bands of Donaldson, then Dorham. He made his first recorded appearance with Dorham on the Riverside LP This Is the Moment, which features the date's leader singing. The piano player didn't get much room to stretch out here, but was thrilled anyway.
After Dorham, Walton replaced a great pianist, Tommy Flanagan, in J.J. Johnson's sextets. These were fine bands that boasted Nat Adderley on cornet or Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Bobby Jaspar or Clifford Jordan on tenor sax. Walton formed some solid relations there with drummer Tootie Heath, the brother of Percy and Jimmy Heath, and Jordan, and worked frequently with both in the future. His performances on sextet LPs Really Livin' and J.J. Inc. offer the first real chance to hear what Walton can do, and he does plenty. His technique is impressive, his touch subtle, his articulation accurate. He's never at a loss for ideas and always thoughtful. Regardless of how fast the tempo is, he refuses to be rushed, pacing himself intelligently and improvising melodically pretty and nicely resolved lines.
His playing owes more to Bud Powell than anyone else here, and he uses Red Garlandish voicings, but already, he has established his own style. It's a mark of leader Johnson's approval that Walton is the featured soloist on Red Cross. In addition to his soloing, Walton proved himself a laudable accompanist who complements the other musicians without getting in their way. As you might think, Johnson impressed Walton as well. Not only was he the premier jazz trombonist at the time, Johnson was also a very gifted composer/arranger, who was able to make his sextet sound like a much larger band.
On March 26, 1959, shortly after cutting his first session with Johnson, Walton appeared on a John Coltrane Atlantic session during which the first versions of "Giant Steps," "Naima," and "Like Sunny" were recorded. Unfortunately, they were not the first versions to be released. They finally saw the light of day in 1976, by which time the public had come to associate "Giant Steps" with Tommy Flanagan, who had recorded it with Trane six weeks after Walton. The pianist solos with Coltrane only on "Like Sunny," turning in a lovely spot.
As Flanagan had been a tough act to follow with Johnson, Walton then succeeded another great pianist, McCoy Tyner, with the Jazztet. Another one of Johnson's splendid sextets, this one featured trumpeter Farmer, tenor saxman Golson, and trombonist Curtis Fuller, who was later replaced by Tom McIntosh. Not only was the band loaded with excellent soloists, it had one of the great jazz composer/arrangers in Golson, and showcased his charts to the point that Walton called his tenure with the band "a lesson in reading." Nevertheless, he hastens to praise Golson for writing well for piano.
It was Walton's next job, however, that brought the pianist to the attention of the jazz public like nothing had previously: a stint with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. This may have been Blakey's best band, featuring, in addition to Walton, a front line containing Hubbard, Shorter, and Fuller. Walton calls his situation with Blakey the ultimate experience.
"It was exactly the opposite of the Jazztet in that Art encouraged everyone to write, to contribute originals,"explains Walton. "As soon as we got six or seven new tunes together, we'd go into the studio and record. The encouragement in that band was contagious. Art had a keen sense of spotting talent, sometimes before it developed. I flowered and developed my ability to accompany with him. Art played with great power, but left little holes for the pianist. "
Walton played with Blakey from 1961-64, and took advantage of the freedom to compose that Blakey gave him. Two of his compositions became title tunes for Blakey LPs, Mosaic and Ugetsu. He also wrote the title tune for Joe Henderson's Mode for Joe.
While not necessarily becoming a better soloist with Blakey -- his playing in the late Fifties being quite strong -- Walton did evolve into a more confident and aggressive performer. In 1965-66, he began backing Abbey Lincoln, who, at the time, was married to jazz drummer extraordinaire Max Roach.
"That was a good experience," affirms Walton, "because Max was so knowledgeable about accompanying. He said to keep on playing the way I was playing, not to do anything different."
Since 1966, Walton has been a leader or freelancer. In 1967 and 1968, he made a couple of fine LPs for Prestige: Cedar, on which Dorham and tenor saxophonist Junior Cook appear, and Spectrum, with Blue Mitchell and Jordan. By this time, Walton's style had become earthier, bluesier, at least partly due to the influence Wynton Kelly had on him. His composition "Higgins Holler" has such an obvious gospel quality that it could've been written by Horace Silver. "Jakes Milkshakes" is another Silver-like tune. The 6/8 "Spectrum" indicates that the pianist was broadening his horizons, as he plays both with and against the rhythm.
On the subject of broadened horizons, the title track of Electric Boogaloo features Walton playing electric piano. This decision was made by the LP's producer to cash in on the popularity of the electric piano as played by Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, but Walton took it in stride.
"It was suggested by the producer, but I agreed to it," comments Walton. "It wasn't any big deal."
Walton plays the instrument his own way, giving it an organ-like quality. He used the electric piano on other sessions as well, but eventually came back to the acoustic instrument, which he seems to prefer. Electric Boogaloo also contains Walton's "Sabbatical," a pretty, melancholy tune stated by flute and trumpet, and an elegant trio version of "Ugetsu."
During the Seventies, Walton cut several fine albums: Eastern Rebellion, featuring George Coleman; A Night at Boomer's, volumes one and two with Jordan; and Breakthrough with Mobley. It was during this decade, that Walton finally started receiving the recognition he deserved as a master, continuing to gain respect during the Eighties and Nineties. He and drummer Billy Higgins have had a long and fruitful relationship, and together with bassist Ron Carter, can be heard in fine form live at Sweet Basil on two Evidence releases, My Funny Valentine and St. Thomas.
In 1996 and 1997, the Astor Place label released two CDs on which all the compositions are by Walton, the pianist arranging them for groups including horns. Composer contains all new compositions by him done by a sextet including trumpeter Roy Hargrove, altoman Vincent Herring, and tenor and soprano man Ralph Moore. Walton's writing is at least as good as ever. "Martha's Prize" is a lovely, gentle theme with a resemblance to "When Lights Are Low"; note how vamps are used effectively on this tune and "The Vision" to build tension. On "Happiness," the theme is tossed back and forth between instruments, while on the undulating rhythm of "Minor Controversy" keeps it lively. "Underground Memoirs" has a dignified but graceful quality, and as one might infer from its title, "Theme for Jobim" is a bossa nova. "Groove Passage" has an infectious, funky Latin quality that is reminiscent of Silver's writing.
Walton's second album for Astor Place, Roots, released earlier this year, is considered by the pianist to be his finest ("all the rest are my second favorite," he jokes). It contains versions of some of his best pieces, including "Mode for Joe," "Bolivia," and "Ojos de Rojo," played by a trio of Walton, Carter, and Nash, with guest soloists trumpeter Terence Blanchard, tenor saxman Joshua Redman, and guitarist Mark Whitfield, and an added ensemble of five hornmen and percussionist Ray Mantilla.
It's easy to understand why Walton digs Roots so much. His own solos are impeccable -- really wonderful -- on par with what he did on Composer. He's utterly relaxed and avoids cliches like the plague. There's a beautiful purity to his playing; it's music boiled down to its essence. Walton's charts also deserve great praise; he puts on a clinic in this area. Walton remarked to me that he'd been interested in arranging as a youngster and did it by trial and error. Over the years, however, he learned from men like Ellington, Johnson, and Golson, and on both Composer and Roots, he's developed his own distinctive arranging style. His warm, airy charts and the way he contrasts and alternates his piano with the horns is at once unique and accessible.
In his mid-60s, Walton continues to grow as a musician; recently, he's written string charts for a to-be-released Hargrove album. Over the years, he's never stopped searching and learning, and whenever he's had the opportunity, he's put his knowledge to excellent use. He could rest on his laurels, but then he probably wouldn't be visiting Austin to educate old and new fans alike on the career of one of jazz's premier players. After all, in jazz, there's no such thing as too much exposure. There is only rightly due, and Cedar Walton has lots coming.
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