Rifftides Washington, DC, correspondent John Birchard journeyed out of the district last weekend to hear pianist Cedar Walton and his trio. Here is John’s review.
Smack in the middle of the mainstream – that’s where you’ll find Cedar Walton, still creative at the age of 74. The pianist brought his current trio to the Montpelier Arts Center in suburban Laurel, Maryland, on Friday, October 18, for an evening of warmly-received performances. On his way up, Walton worked with a literal who’s who in modern jazz: J.J. Johnson, Kenny Dorham, the Farmer-Golson Jazztet, and his best-known affiliation, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the band that featured Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard. And all along the way, his ability to write attractive tunes brought him further recognition.
Friday evening’s concert featured mostly Walton originals, leading off with “Cedar’s Blues”, an up, boppish line that served to warm up the band members, John Webber on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums. Webber favors the lower register of his instrument, giving Walton a rich launching pad for his inventions. Farnsworth’s style is strong without being obtrusive, always listening to the other players and complementing their work. The trio was tight and well-rehearsed.
Cedar Walton is very much a two-handed pianist, as he showed on his “Clockwise”, a piece in ¾ time containing a recurring Latin vamp. When he strikes a note or chord, it’s clear and strong. He doesn’t pound the keyboard, but his sound is definitely declarative.
On “Dear Ruth”, a jaunty-sounding melody taken at an easy walking tempo, Walton introduced a few bars of Garneresque left hand to good effect. The tune, said Walton, was dedicated to his mother, his first piano teacher. He told of her taking her young son to New York from their home in Dallas, Texas for the first time. Walton said he wanted to see Jackie Robinson play baseball. His mother opted for the Apollo Theatre in Harlem to see Count Basie and Billie Holiday. He smiled as he said his mother made the right choice.
Walton has long had the knack of creating catchy lines with a Latin flavor. His “Bolivia” is a good example. On Friday evening, the trio played “Ojos de Rojo” (Eyes of Red) as a way-up- tempo samba. The tune showcased Walton’s sparkling single-note lines set off by rich chords. Farnsworth’s drumming was sizzling and he also soloed effectively.
Only two pop standards appeared in the program, “Time After Time” and “Body and Soul”, both taken at walking tempos. Among the pianist’s own compositions, “One Flight Down” and “The Holy Land” stood out as interesting tunes that prompted exciting performances.
Cedar Walton wears his senior citizen status well. He has a warm, engaging personality to go with an enormous talent. He’s been a steady contributor to the language of modern jazz for more than forty years. And he hasn’t lost a step when it comes to delivering a rewarding listening experience. The Montpelier Arts Center concert was an evening well spent.
There seems to be a shortage of Cedar Walton videos on the internet. The Rifftides staff found one made on New Year’s Eve 1985 at a club in Baltimore, not far from where Birchard reported. Walton was playing with vibraharpist Milt Jackson, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Mickey Roker. The engagement is likely to have been Jackson’s. Walton is featured on the first of two Duke Ellington compositions. The picture quality suggests a subaquatic environment, but the sound is good, or at least good enough so that you can plainly hear everyone. This is one you may not wish to view full-screen.