Monday, August 19, 2013

RIP Cedar Walton

We've lost too many of the great masters of the keys recently. I was very surprised when I heard about Mulgrew Miller's untimely passing, and then more recently, to hear about the death of the great George Duke. Yesterday, jazz lost another legend; Cedar Walton was found dead in his home. Walton was 79. Hearing of Walton's passing naturally made me think about his influence on my music; when I was coming up in Baltimore, Cedar Walton tunes were the badge of hipness; if you called "Bolivia", or "Firm Roots", or "Fantasy In D", or "Hindsight", or "Cedar's Blues," other musicians would immediately have more respect for you. This is why "Bolivia" was one of the first tunes I learned on piano. When I would sit in around town, I would always call "Bolivia". It's interesting to note that this tune is a favorite of some of my better students in Portland. In fact, come to think of it, I don't believe I have ever turned down the opportunity to play this tune; something about "Bolivia" (and many other Walton tunes) makes you just want to play them forever.

I had been meaning to present a blog on one of Walton's piano solos, which alto saxophonist Steve Wilson called "the perfect solo." It's from Eddie Harris' recording "The In Sound"; on the tune " The Shadow Of Your Smile," Walton takes the first solo, and it's truly one chorus of brilliance. I had learned it by ear, but I hadn't gotten around to entering it into Sibelius. This recording inspired my to record my own version of the tune on my "Come Together" album. If you have a chance, check it out:
And if you have more time, here is my version. 

I actually got to meet Cedar Walton one time. It was not exactly how I pictured meeting one of my heroes. I was working with vocalist Vanessa Rubin a number of years ago, and she mentioned that she had gotten Cedar Walton to write some arrangements for her upcoming recording. So she wanted me to come over to Walton's apartment to hear the material. Walton at the time lived in Park Slope; we met and walked over to his place. Walton answered the door shirtless; apparently, his air conditioning was busted and it was one of those sweltering New York summers. Walton was totally down to earth. He put his arrangements up on his piano, played through them, and then looked at me and said, "Now, why don't YOU try?" (It was interesting also because we ended up having drummer Billy Higgins on some of the recording; Higgins didn't seem to need any charts for the tunes which Walton had arranged, probably because they played together for so many decades, he could predict the flow of the arrangement quite easily.

Cedar Walton was an indisputably great pianist, bandleader, sideman, and composer. For some reason, possibly because he never became a superstar in the fusion-filled 70's ( much like Woody Shaw and others), he seems to not get mentioned as often as other pianists. I believe Eric Reed organized a tribute to Cedar Walton a few years back at Lincoln Center. Walton's passing reminds me that we need to appreciate the masters while they are still alive. Don't take the older musicians for granted; we can learn way more than we realize from the older generations. Energy and youthful vigor can be appealing, however, much of playing jazz is about wisdom. Seek wisdom when you can.

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