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Keeping His Promise

Jazz pianist Cedar Walton isn't resting on the laurels of his legendary career.

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With a storied career marked by artistic milestones, 67-year-old Cedar Walton still has one aspiration: to continue his lifelong pursuit of jazz. Walton's rich resume begins at the heart of the revolutionary jazz era of the mid-1950s, when, as a university student in Colorado, the Dallas-born pianist met and played with giants such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. He moved to the Big Apple in 1955 and became immersed in New York's jazz world, teaming with a who's who of jazz including Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Kenny Dorham and Art Blakey, then stepped out on his own as leader in the 1970s. He won a Grammy for his contributions as pianist and arranger on Etta James' album Mystery Lady. He was even commissioned to write a piece by the Monterey Jazz Festival, and his composition "Autumn Sketches" was performed at the 1996 event, fulfilling what could be considered Walton's ultimate quest.

Being satisfied with his career, however, doesn't mean that Walton is content as a musician. His new CD, The Promise Land (HighNote Records), finds the pianist -- as always -- engaging the music with a fresh approach. "It's just the piano waiting for me," says Walton in a recent phone interview. "To sit down and create on your own terms is something that anybody probably would strive for -- certainly, I did."

"Cedar was a stalwart; he stayed on course; he is a contributor to the music overall," says Ellis Marsalis, who met his fellow pianist in 1951 when Walton spent a semester as a music major at New Orleans' Dillard University. Marsalis, who was still in high school, remembers going to the college to hang out with Walton and Harold Battiste. The three played just one gig together (with Marsalis on bass) before Walton departed to study at Denver University.

"He was such a clean, crisp pianist, he really opened me up to the way cats from other places played," recalls Battiste, who at the time was just 18 years old.

"I didn't get a chance for New Orleans to rub off on me except through Dillard," says Walton, who recalls his time here as a fruitful experience. "I have always considered New Orleans important in the development of jazz music."

An expressive and eloquent pianist, Walton is also a composer of note whose Texas roots sometimes emerge in soulful, danceable excursions like the title cut of his new CD. Many of his tunes -- like the swinging "Back to Bologna," a song written in the mid-70s and revisited on the album -- have become jazz standards. Other Walton classics include "Bolivia," which was picked up by Freddie Hubbard among other artists, and "Mode for Joe," a tribute to Joe Henderson.

The way a song enters the jazz language to become a standard is somewhat mysterious. One thing is essential, however: It must compel musicians. "It has to present something to them that plays to their strengths," says Walton, "and part of its endurance is that it's attractive to the listener." Walton's reputation as a composer blossomed during his stint with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers from 1961 to 1964.

"He was such a great bandleader and he encouraged us to compose," says Walton. "He showed us that to travel the world and perform and meet people from all walks of life was, indeed, an incredible way to gain knowledge, experience, perspectives and outlooks. It permeated the whole group throughout the time I was with him and even after because the things we recorded are still being presented today."

Though the time Walton spent with John Coltrane was minimal, the association with the saxophone giant also gained him recognition. It was Walton's piano on the original recording session of Coltrane's legendary album Giant Steps, which included tunes like the title cut, "Naima" and "Like Sunny." Because Walton had other obligations, Coltrane had to finish the album without him. (The outtakes were finally released in 1976.)

At the Contemporary Arts Center, Walton leads a trio with his bassist of more than 20 years, David Williams, and drummer Winard Harper. Of Williams, Walton says, "He's got a flavor that's compatible with my love of island and traditional Latin music, which is just indispensable in my search for that feeling that is exotic and has the necessary touch of ingenuity." Harper is a newcomer to the group, one of several drummers Walton has called on since the death of his musical soulmate, the great Billy Higgins. For Walton, the bandstand is a forum for his continuing artistic quest.

"The pursuit continues for perfection of the alliance you try to establish with the audience," he says. "It's electrifying most of the time."

'He was such a clean, crisp pianist, he really opened me up to the way cats from other places played.' -- Harold Battiste on Cedar Walton (pictured)
  • 'He was such a clean, crisp pianist, he really opened me up to the way cats from other places played.' -- Harold Battiste on Cedar Walton (pictured)

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