Walton is Solid as Cedar

by Will Friedwald, New York Sun
August 8, 2008

Like many jazz musicians, Cedar Walton, who is appearing with his quintet this week at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, has an appetite for puns on his own name, and he has titled his new album "Seasoned Wood." It's a joke, but for the highly regarded 74-year-old pianist, composer, and bandleader, it's also a serious reflection on who he is and where he is artistically.

The cover of the album is adorned with a photo of the wooden guts of a piano. Mr. Walton is perhaps implying that his special affinity for the instrument stems from their both being made of wood. Wood implies a kind of sturdiness, a natural durability; likewise, the titles of Mr. Walton's compositions here, such as "Clockwise" and "Hindsight" (and Jimmy Heath's "Longravity"), refer to the passage of time and the steady force of life.

Indeed, time has been good to Mr. Walton, who recently celebrated his 50th anniversary in the major leagues of jazz. He made his recording debut in 1958 (as a sideman with trumpeter Kenny Dorham) and earned his initial reputation with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The following year, he contributed to John Coltrane's seminal album "Giant Steps." But it wasn't until 1967 that Mr. Walton made his debut as a leader. Dorham returned the favor by guest-starring on several tracks on the album, dubbed "Cedar!," the cover of which had the star's name displayed in big letters against a backdrop of wood paneling.

On the new album and at Dizzy's, Mr. Walton is joined by his usual first choice on saxophone, Vincent Herring. On the album, Messrs. Walton and Herring are joined by the trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and a rhythm section of Peter Washington (bass) and Al Foster (drums). At the club, the lineup is made up of Steve Turre on trombone, David Williams on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums. On Tuesday, the centerpiece of the quintet's opening set was Mr. Walton's stylish treatment of "The Man I Love." One would expect the leader to retool the chord changes, and indeed he did, but what was really arresting was the way he cast the tune itself. With the song set in a medium-up tempo, he subdivided the melodic line as if he were paying as much attention to the lyrics as the notes, playing the words "someday he'll come along" by himself with bass and drums, then having the horns play the rest of the line.

As for Gershwin's beautiful bridge, Mr. Walton made it a gift to Mr. Williams, who has been his bassist of choice for 30 years. You can't improve on Gershwin, but you can treat his music with a fresh take that honors the composer's own originality.
The same could be said of Mr. Walton's trio treatment of "Over the Rainbow," which I had heard him play at the 92nd Street Y two weeks ago, and which is roughly in the same vein as his reading of "My Ship" on 1967's "Cedar!" It's not exactly irreverent, starting slow, with the bridge called into service as a verse; but even when he takes it into fast bop time, it's never disrespectful. Mr. Walton performs a service to the tune by showing that it doesn't lose its essential beauty, even when recast in a radical new setting. On the new album, he brings the same inspired touch to another standard, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." He can play fast and loose with the melody and have fun with it, but he's laughing with it, not at it.

If brilliant recastings of standards are one aspect of the Walton oeuvre, so too is a creative use of waltz time. "Cedar!" included one original in 3/4 time ("Twilight Waltz"), and so does the new album, although it's a classic tune of Mr. Walton's creation, "Clockwise," which the composer first recorded in 1977. Most jazz waltzes are modal in nature, and somewhat rhythmically and harmonically ambiguous. Not so with this sharp tune. "Clockwise" is a solid and traditional ¾ that owes more to Mozart than it does to Miles Davis. Mr. Walton also played this (in a double-Steinway treatment with Bill Mays) at the Y last month, but his new trio recording (one of three tracks on the new album with just bass and drums) is a special one.

"Holy Land," which was first recorded by the tenor saxophonist Fathead Newman in 1967, was originally more of a Gospel-y vehicle for soul jazz tenors such as Mr. Newman and Houston Person. Mr. Walton's quintet treatments of this tune have evolved through the years into something much more classical. At Dizzy's, he began with an elaborate, almost baroque introduction, which led into a bass solo. With this tune, one is never quite sure where the "head" is — and it doesn't help that it is only 12 bars long, and it's not a blues. The central portion of this performance of "Holy Land" was a series of exchanges among the piano, the trombone, and the saxophone that were linked by the drummer. It was hard to tell whether they were trading 12s or just playing a succession of single-chorus solos.

The Dizzy's set included two more slices of Waltonia, "Underground Memories" and "Firm Roots." The first was a quintet expansion of a piece the composer recorded as a solo three years ago. When the leader dedicated the tune to the New York subway system, I expected it to be noisy, crowded, and relentlessly fast. Instead, it was sleek and stylish, efficiently traveling from one point to another in a manner that would do the MTA proud, with Mr. Turre playing muted and Mr. Herring on tenor. The widely recorded "Firm Roots," another Walton classic with a tree-and-wood title, concluded the Dizzy's set. This memorable descending line has always struck me as a bebop equivalent of Tetris, in which the notes fall into place and form patterns as they head downward.

It's been a heady week for living legends of jazz, with Sonny Rollins (at Central Park SummerStage on Wednesday) and Hank Jones (continuing through Saturday at Birdland) both in town. But the well-seasoned Mr. Walton, who is now at the top of my list of musicians most deserving of the NEA Jazz Masters Award, more than holds his own.