Cedar Walton

It's no secret among my jazz-loving friends, including those of you who visit this website each week, that I have an inordinate fondness for bebop and hard bop and just plain bop. If I haven't before explicitly stated it, there you have it.

Hand in glove with that fondness is an aversion to too easily classifying jazz and its various progeny. Sometimes that makes it difficult to argue a point in favor of one approach over another, except on the grounds of personal preference. And any other fan might throw "de gustibus non est disputandum" ["concerning taste there can be no argument"] in my smug face and walk away as the contradiction drips off the end of my nose.

When the poet said of contradiction, "So what?" -- and here I paraphrase -- he was arguing for inclusiveness shed of the taint of taxonomy. Unfortunately, human intellectual response to art doesn't work that way, so our minds insist on making priority lists of styles that our hearts and souls tell us don't matter in the least.

And this, of course, brings me to Cedar Walton.

I recently acquainted myself with some of Walton's more recent work, courtesy of a friend who offered me bed and board -- and jazz -- for a few days as I went about some personal business 100 miles from where I live. It was breathtakingly hip work, right up to the high Walton standard and it made me hope the man lives forever.

It's hard to imagine that Cedar will be 70 in a couple of years. Like Herbie Hancock, his is a music that seems ever-young to me and, even though the traces of where jazz has been in the last 50 years can be discerned in his recent work, Walton will always be, to me, of the class of pianist who fits right in with the greats -- Mal Waldron, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Red Garland, Phineas Newborn, Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner and any significant bop or post-bop keyboardist one can name.

But I refer to Walton as a hard-bopper only in deference to consensus. Here's why:
Like Bill Evans, Cedar Walton continues the tradition of a melodic sense that resides inside, rather than outside, the improvisational landscape. He can run riffs as funky as Silver, explore the outer regions of polytonality right alongside fellow pioneer Tyner, and retreat with his unerring harmonic sense unobtrusively into the background to point up the gutsy soulfulness of, say, Abbey Lincoln, for whom he served as accompanist for a couple of years during the mid-1960s, a stint that echoes Waldron's gentle accompaniment of Billie Holiday right up to the time of her death in 1959.

Walton's chops come as the natural result of his wide experience, specifically his presence during a lot of the moments that really mattered in jazz after the bebop era.

After he was drafted into the U.S. Army, an eventuality that interrupted his plans to make a musical career in New York, he found himself in Germany, where, in a historical bit of serendipity, he played with Eddie Harris, Don Ellis and Leo Wright. Returning to New York and taking up his musical aspirations, he found work with another group of important players, among them Kenny Dorham and J.J. Johnson and he also became an important member of Art Farmer's influential Jazztet.

It was a natural leap from the Jazztet to Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, an aggregation that included the up-and-coming Wayne Shorter and Freddy Hubbard. After his 1965-1966 stint with Lincoln, it was come whomever, come who may for Walton. He joined bandstands and recording sessions alongside such greats as Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Clifford Jordan and Billy Higgins. And that list doesn't even begin to approach the breadth of his exposure to greatness.

His influences have been broad and deep, and I think that accounts for the freshness one finds in his work. A Walton recording, like the fresh aroma of cedar, is always invigorating, no matter whether he serves as side man or front man. And he never fails. Ever.

Topping his work of the past decade is "Ironclad: Live At Yoshi's" [Monarch, 1995], which, alas, is no longer in print in the United States. Next is "Promise Land" [2001, High Note], the most recent of which I am aware, followed by "Composer" [Astor Place, 1996] which shows off his considerable talents as a tunesmith and reinforces his melodic sense within the improvisational framework.

Walton's work as a side man is scattered far and wide among the classic recordings of the post-bop era. A few hours of pleasurable browsing in your favorite music shop should yield treasure after treasure.