The veteran pianist wears a dark suit and smart tie, every thread in place. He is lit by small red and white spotlights set into the ceiling. His first steps across the stage, 15-minutes before show time, are tentative, even hobbled.
The Bohemian Caverns was a famed Washington, DC, jazz club in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Miles Davis played here—and Ramsey Lewis recorded a hit record here in 1962. In its early years the basement was graced by royalty: Ellington, Armstrong, Holiday, Eckstine, and Calloway. It was closed after the riots in 1968 then reopened. In its new era, The Caverns is home mostly to local acts. It’s barely marked on the outside and gets minimal advertising in the local media. Still, it feels like a classic jazz club at a time when there aren’t many left.
The audience tonight is absolutely DC. Black and white, about even. Suburbs and city. The vast majority have favorite records at home with plumes of cigarette smoke on the covers. Maybe five people under 40 line the mock cave walls of the club.
Also on the stage is a man in a natty striped shirt, a graying afro, and smart glasses. He releases his bass violin from its huge zip-up bag and gently thrums his fingertips across the strings. A very tall man sucks on a reed. He pieces together a beautiful tenor saxophone. The drummer twirls wing-nuts to attach his cymbals to hardware behind a minimal kit.
There’s a buzz in the room. The musicians greet friends as they prepare. There’s a beautiful photographer positioning herself at the back of the small bandstand, nestled between the ride cymbal and the bass amplifier. Chardonnay, Corona and jerk chicken crowd the small tables. Eventually, the band makes its way into position—smiles and makes small talk. The first tune, you can hear veteran pianist say to his horn player, will be a blues.
Cedar Walton, Please
It is a blues, indeed—but it’s so much more, too. The arrangement is exceedingly clever, with the piano and tenor playing a hip repeated figure, then changing its rhythm slightly, all while the bass and left hand of the piano generate a skittering low counterpoint. Once the head is complete, the pianist’s right hand begins a concise solo that seems almost mathematical in its logic of climbing, descending, and swirling figures. For a quick instant it sounds like a cool update on Art Tatum, but there are no fancy flourishes. Instead, this piano solo moves hard and cool into fresh harmonic territory. It spins your head around.
This audience loves Cedar Walton, maybe the greatest jazz pianist alive.
Walton is unknown to most music fans but venerated among jazz insiders. He played with Coltrane on the classic Giant Steps date, then he joined the best band in jazz in 1960, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Walton was hired on the same day as trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and he served during the tenure of Wayne Shorter and Curtis Fuller. Walton was named the music director and primary arranger.
During the later ‘60s, Walton played on a huge mess of Prestige and Blue Notes dates, including a handful of classics, such as Joe Henderson’s Mode for Joe, the title track of which was written by Walton. In the ‘70s, Walton flirted briefly with some pop-jazz through his work as a sideman on CTI Records and in a handful of his own records (such as the mostly miserable Mobius, 1975 on MCA), but mostly he became the most consistent and hard-working pianist in the hard-bop mold.
On the bandstand in DC, Walton is leading a group modeled exactly on the most successful and creative groups he has led since the mid-‘70s. Walton’s current trio is solid and serious. David Williams plays the bass with a ripe physicality but also nimble humor. Walking beneath the rest of the band, he is both reassuring and urgent. Willie Jones, III, swings the kit with little fuss but plenty of colors—funky but not rockin’, greasy but still elegant.
On top of this trio is saxophonist Javon Jackson, the kind of tenor who navigates between soulful and cerebral with modern grace. He can play abstract patterns like Coltrane, but he is equally likely to give a blues cry followed by a slippery flatted-fifth lick. Put together with the trio, Jackson completes a thoroughly versatile band—a group that sums up the best of modern jazz: steely and smart but still earthy and down-home.
The audience tonight is soaking it in.
Walton, On Record
Unlike many mainstream veterans in jazz, Cedar Walton’s recordings seem to be getting better.
Some of the early Walton records were spotty. Electric Boogaloo Song from 1969 used some electric piano and the era’s modish funkiness. A Night at Boomer’s with Clifford Jordan was a rangy live disc, but it failed to capture the crispness of Walton’s arrangements. The several discs Walton released with Bob Berg on tenor sax were thrilling, but none came close the band’s impact, live. For example, The Maestro (1980) mixed instrumental tracks with four other featuring Abbey Lincoln on vocals. All good stuff, but not a great record, overall.
Recently, however, Walton’s recordings have seemed spotless and eternal. Promise Land from 2001 sets up a string of great Walton originals as well as the group’s classic Latin version of “Body and Soul”. Seasoned Wood expands Walton’s group to a quintet with Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, and it’s poppin’ at every step. Walton has a way of reimagining standard tunes that makes them a perfect combination of fresh and familiar, and Seasoned Wood starts with a cubist version of “The Man I Love” that breaks up the melody into smaller chunks and passes them around to different instruments. “Plexus” is an old tune from Walton’s Messenger days, and hearing it in the new millennium is a reminder that Walton’s writing—with its driving bass figures and powerful swing—ages better than just about anything else in jazz.
Walton’s most recent, Voices Deep Within, is a classic: catchy originals, reinvented standards, and improvisations that never sound like so much noodling. Coltrane’s aching ballad “Naima” here is played as a pulsing groove tune, and the older tune “Memories of You” is given a jaunty update. Icing on the cake is a Cedar Walton arrangement of “Over the Rainbow” that sidesteps maudlin effortlessly. The title track is an old tune of Walton’s but it summarizes everything that is right about his composing and bandleading. The tune itself contains an irresistible melody, unusual structure, sections with driving bass figures, and chordal movement so logical that it becomes part of the melody.
In short, after 50-plus solo albums, Cedar Walton still has it.
Young and Foolish
Back on the bandstand Walton and Jackson are about to play one of those cleverly transformed standards. Walton takes the microphone in hand and announces that the next song will be dedicated to us, the audience. He looks around, charmingly, and adds, “The tune is called ‘Young and Foolish’.”
We laugh, of course. Compared to Walton, 76, the audience qualifies as young. And performance of the tune has youthful vigor to spare, with the melody re-thought and turned from a ballad into a modern marvel of syncopation and swing. It’s the highlight of the show. It’s the best thing the Cavern walls are going to absorb all year.
But the joke within Walton’s joke is that the audience, mostly, is far from youthful. After the set there’s one kid, barely out of his teens, who talks to the pianist at the bar in a glow of excitement. He is conspicuously out of place among the spreading middles, grey hairs, and comfortable shoes that surround him.
The truth is this: what we think of as classic, “mainstream” jazz has an aging audience. The music of Cedar Walton makes clear that this is ironic and wrong because his version of classic jazz feels not just up-to-the-minute but even sublime. His “Young and Foolish” is stripped of indulgent sentiment or over-prettiness, driving straight at your ear’s center of cool. To my ears anyway, it sounds as hip as anything by Robert Glasper or The Bad Plus.
I love the impulse in today’s younger jazz musicians to infuse the tradition with the influence of today’s pop music. Vijay Iyer playing a song by M.I.A. is a serenade as far as I am concerned. I think this direction is a hopeful sign for the music.
But I want to implore every new-ish jazz fan—anybody who has read this far and who came to music because of Medeski, Martin, and Wood or Jason Moran or their equivalent—to check out the still-young music of Cedar Walton. Or Sonny Rollins. Or Kenny Barron. Or Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz or Ron Carter.
The journey into the history of jazz can be a serious thrill ride. Still young, sometimes still foolish, the old stuff happens to remain seriously exciting if you just find the right time and place to listen.