It’s no surprise that the best players rise to the top very quickly. When pianist, composer Cedar Walton arrived in New York City in the mid-1950s, he immediately began working and recording with many of the greatest musicians of the time, including Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Dorham, J.J. Johnson, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane and the Jazztet. He was virtually the house pianist at Prestige Records in the 1960s, and was a founding member of two highly regarded cooperative groups: The Timeless All-Stars and Eastern Rebellion. Walton has led his own trios, quartets and quintets, worked with singers Abbey Lincoln and Ernestine Anderson, and his arrangements for the 1994 release “Mystery Lady” helped Etta James win a Grammy. As a composer he’s received a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival and his catchy original tunes, like “Bolivia,” “Mode For Joe,” “Ugestsu” and “Mosaic” have become a part of the standard jazz repertoire. Recent releases include a compilation “Naima” (Savoy Jazz), “The Latin Tinge” (High Note) and three Japanese imports. I arrived at Walton’s hotel at the appointed hour on a brisk November afternoon and woke him from a deep sleep. He said he was dreaming of Monk.
1. Brad Mehldau
“Monk’s Dream,” from Live In Tokyo (Nonesuch). Mehldau, piano. Recorded in 2003.
Before: [listens attentively throughout with occasional grunts of appreciation] The pianist has a distinct style which I enjoyed immensely. It was a safari, if you will, through the jungle of that particular Monk song. I thought it was a delightful solo trip.
What did you like about the playing?
It was daring, and it was quite original in the sense that he didn’t veer into any sort of imitation or attempted imitation of somebody else’s style. The treatment I thought was spectacular. I’m a big Monk guy, so anything by Monk. And for someone to explore one theme to that degree was quite daring. He, or it could be she, seemed to have unlimited chops, using both right and left hand facility quite adroitly, if I can use that term. Thoroughly enjoyable; I could do with more listening to it. A couple of people came to mind. Chick Corea for a moment, but I don’t think it’s him. Brad Mehldau also came to mind, only because I heard him once playing solo with this kind of facility. For some reason I don’t think he would explore Monk that deeply, but he might.
After: Ah hah! That’s great. I see, “Monk’s Dream.” I owe Monk an apology for not remembering that title. It was exhilarating, all the superlatives in the dictionary.
2. Count Basie and Oscar Peterson
“Bun’s Blues,” from Satch and Josh (Pablo). Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Louis Bellson, drums. Recorded 1975/Reissued 1998.
Before: This sounds like Basie and Peterson. What clued me was the presence of the guitar, which I presume is Mr. Green. I think I remember hearing this about 10 years ago. It’s almost unmistakably Mr. Basie, whose musical personally dictates that he lays back. I’ve been listening to Oscar Peterson since his first record, so I would recognize him under any conditions, unless he was trying to disguise himself. This is 100% blues, with total enjoyment of it. Those are two blues masters. That particular cut seemed to be a piece of cake.
3. Nancy Wilson
“Blame It On My Youth,” from R.S.V.P. (Manchester Craftsman’s Guild). Nancy Wilson, vocal; George Shearing, piano. Recorded in 2002-2003.
Before: I found myself listening so hard to the vocal. If it was Nancy Wilson, it’s probably her pianist. A few bars reminded me of Natalie Cole, and the song to me was made famous by her father Nat Cole. My first instinct is Nancy Wilson, but I couldn’t catch the pianist. Hank Jones comes to mind, Tommy Flanagan, a whole lot of pianists.
After: I met her when she was friendly with the Adderley brothers and she was a secretary at Capitol Records. I think George is a great pianist and arranger. The things he did with Nancy and his quintet were phenomenal. They made so much sense with the interplay between voice and instrument. I heard Billy Eckstine with Shearing’s Quintet and they were superb. Have you ever heard that record he made with Nat Cole? Incredible arrangements.
4. Horace Silver
“That Healin’ Feelin’,” from The United States of Mind (Blue Note). Horace Silver, electric piano; Randy Brecker, trumpet; George Coleman, tenor sax; Bob Cranshaw, electric bass; Mickey Roker, drums. Recorded in 1970/Reissued 2004.
Before: That was a nice rendition of an original song. It had a flavor of the old Crusader days, though they never used a trumpet so that rules them out. I was impressed with the tenor player’s style. He or she could have been the leader. It was a routine, post-be-bop styled theme. I found it enjoyable.
After: I’ll be doggone. I thought about Horace Silver, but it didn’t sound like him. George Coleman? Ahhh. Very nice trickery there. Very good. Horace is a consummate, prolific composer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t sitting down writing something right now. That’s what impressed me about him, that he composed all the time. His tunes are classics. He works at them meticulously, and hard work usually pays off. Our mothers taught us that. I call him Horatio. We’ve been friends and compadres for a long time. We see each other if he’s in NY or I’m in Los Angeles. He’s one of my favorite composers.
5. McCoy Tyner
“The Chase,” from Illuminations (Telarc). McCoy Tyner, piano; Lewis Nash, drums. Recorded in 2003.
Before: So, no bass? If it’s not McCoy Tyner or Chick Corea, it’s somebody that I’m less familiar with. I was trying to nail down the drummer, but without success. It’s a wonderful exhibition of chops, and an adventurous player who would do so much with such a simple theme. I credit the player with being daring enough to trust his own inventiveness.
After: Lewis Nash. Right. I played with him recently and we have some things coming up. I have heard the tune “Angelina” from this recording on the radio recently and it’s incredible. I succeeded McCoy in the Jazztet sometime in the early 1960s. I went from J.J. Johnson to the Jazztet and McCoy went from the Jazztet to John Coltrane. Last time I hung out with McCoy we were on a panel with Roy Haynes, Ron Carter, and James Moody reminiscing about the Newport Jazz Festival.
6. Big Joe Turner
“Careless Love,” from Willie “The Lion” Smith 1938-1940 (Classics). Big Joe Turner, vocal; Willie “The Lion” Smith, piano. Recorded in 1940.
Before: Excellent. I’m quite fond of Big Joe Turner. Thoroughly delightful performance. I’m not sure it’s a blues form but it’s certainly bluesy. I’m anxious to find out who the pianist was. I’d guess it was somebody well-known. The piano accompaniment fit like a glove with the style of the song. It’s quite astute without benefit of bass and drums. It was totally appropriate to that style of singing.
After: Yes. I was trying to think of Willie “The Lion” Smith but I couldn’t remember his name. That song you just picked, that’s great music right there. [looks at booklet photo of Smith, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie and laughs].
7. Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan
“Au Privave,” from I’m All Smiles (MPS). Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, piano. Recorded in 1983.
Before: That was a two piano rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave.” They both employed block chords a lot, so it was phenomenal for them not to clash [chuckles]. It was a very swinging version of a favorite jam session tune based on blues. I’m stumped but thoroughly pleased by the performance.
After: Hmm. Very interesting. Those two are my unrivaled favorites. Me and Tommy are sort of in the same generation. When he first came to NY in the mid 50s I showed him a place where he could practice and we were friends ever since. He always liked one of my compositions “The Maestro,” and he was anxious to show it to Ella Fitzgerald when he was with her. But I don’t know if he ever did. Abbey Lincoln ended up doing it. Me and Mr. Jones traveled to Japan for a presentation called 100 Golden Fingers and we became friends. I found him to be a consummate concert artist. He must have had twelve tuxedos with him and twelve pairs of patent leather shoes. And he’d go out and play solo with such presence and total professionalism. I can’t say enough about him.
8. Michel Camilo
“A Dream,” from Solo (Telarc). Michel Camilo, piano. Recorded 2004.
Before: I’ve not heard that before. I’m guessing it might be Chick Corea. But I didn’t have any substantial clues to fall back on, except that I played opposite him at the Blue Note a few years back and he played some pieces like that. Otherwise, it sounded semi-classical, though it could be an original piece. I like it. I found it very enjoyable; both listenable and interesting. It’s hard for me not to like a piano piece. And this pianist was quite capable, technically, with a good sense of dynamics.
After: Oh yes. I haven’t heard him enough to recognize him. Very capable. All the things I said about him are quite true.
9. Don Byron
“Freddie Freeloader,” from Ivey Divey (Blue Note). Don Byron, clarinet; Jason Moran, piano; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 2004.
Before: [laughs] They ended before the ending. Besides that song being “Freddie Freeloader,” the artists that came to mind are Wayne Shorter or Joe Lovano, who I know has done some things with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The drummer sounds like Jack DeJohnette. It’s not my particular approach to a piece but it certainly was interesting. It sounds like they had a lot of musicianship and experience. They didn’t sound like beginning players.
After: I’ve heard of Jason. Very interesting. DeJohnette is not a young player but his style still holds up as very adventurous.
10. Marilyn Crispell
“Harmonic Line,” from Storyteller (ECM). Marilyn Crispell, piano; Mark Helias, bass; Paul Motian, drums. Recorded in 2003.
Before: First word that comes to mind is dirge. It seems to give a feeling of mourning, a very deep expression of how these artists feel. The feeling transcended the playing, the feeling of sadness.
After: I don’t think I know her. Paul Motian I know. I found this totally different from the other pieces you played.
11. Bebo & Chucho Valdés
“Peanut Vendor,” from Paquito d’Rivera Presents CubaJazz (Tropijazz). Bebo Valdés, Chucho Valdés, piano. Recorded in 1996.
Before: You know, that was a spirited version of “Peanut Vendor.” It could have been the same pianist overdubbed. Rubalcaba came to mind, Especially the glisses he did and the abstract things. Sounds like Latin guys.
After: I know Chucho. No wonder it sounded authentic. I thought it was very worthy. Chucho is a formidable pianist. I met him, and in fact I heard him sit in with the Monday night orchestra at the Vanguard one night.
Have you ever been to Cuba?
Yes, I was on the trip to Cuba in 1979 with Stan Getz and Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, Willie Bobo, Tony Williams, the Heath Brothers. I wrote an arrangement of Tin Tin Deo. At the rehearsal in a hotel room I found myself conducting Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Heath, Arthur Blythe and Hubert Laws. And I said this must be a dream, counting off for these guys.
Your three favorite recordings of all time?
“Sweet Lorraine” by Nat King Cole, the original “Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington on Capitol Records, and I guess one of the Miles Davis records; Milestones with Cannonball, Coltrane, Philly Joe, Paul Chambers and Red Garland.
This B&A was recorded on Nov. 5, 2004 for JazzTimes.