Robert Walter cuts record with jazz funk greats.
You know how it feels. The breaking open of fresh plastic. The quickening pulse. Then maddening attempts at peeling that damn sticker off the top of the jewel case. Pop it out and gasp quietly as light scatters over the impossibly unblemished surface of fresh lasered plastic. Expectation builds. The world shrinks to you and your stereo. Trip on over to the home entertainment stack and slide open the tray, baby, cause there's fresh funk in the house.
At least in my case it was funk. Let's face it, some new CD's get you more excited than others. A CD of Robert Walter mashing ivory with a bunch of overqualified funk legends is pretty exciting. So it was - the beginning of a fulfilling, healthy relationship.
The album sports the title, "There goes the neighborhood", tribute to the presence of the whippersnapper Walter amidst such a seasoned assemblage of veteran musicians, who are as follows: Harvey Mason on drums (drummer on Herbie Hancock classic Headhunters), Red Holloway on sax (Jack McDuff Group), bassist Chuck Rainey (The Crusaders, Aretha Franklin), and guitarist Phil Upchurch (Jedi, played with Ramsey Lewis and Curtis Mayfield). Seems our homey on the Hammond was ready for a trip back to the roots. On the bio, Walter states "I wanted to bring out the blues element in my playing." The result is an album with amazing personality. Each tune is its own beast, and talk about covering a range of emotion. The tunes are relatively brief - the longest clocks in at 5:22, a mere twitch in jamologic time - and the album moves right along.
It's always an interesting proposition turning music into words. Cliché mines are everywhere - especially when dealing with funk. The first zip through the new album is definitive. "Hmmm," you think. "Funky."
But try writing a review of a funk album without using funky. Try describing Robert Walter without using funky. Impossible. So then, the first tune, 2% Body Fat, is funky. It comes squiggling out at you like a booty in a boogy bag. It's fast, with a kicking key refrain that calls out for attention. That's answered promptly with quick wa-wocks that seem to say, "bring it on brother." Parliament things are going on in the background, you know - springs popping, with bass and drum driving into a little soliloquy. Suddenly, lordy, the guitar jam kicks in at the ripe old age of 1:51. It's all liquid and peeling, with occasional blistering notes. It starts quick and finishes fast, and goes tumbling into a psychedelically jazzy key jam that's got that distinct deeply electrified Congressional flavah. Up up up, down down down, a dramatic flair at the end, and the longest tune on the album expires into a final broken slinky sound.
First and ten.
Bread and Water lets you catch your breath momentarily before grooving into a sax ephiphany. That soon melts into yet another hydrophilic guitar jam. I tell you one thing, Upchurch has got butter on those strings. You start to feel that old homegrown blues flavor that the album is targeting. The roots. The sound is there - smoky, crackly, downtown late at night with a smile on your face type feel. Behind it all, a salsa steady cowbell keeps everything rolling.
Bang, next tune. The title track- a most excellent composition. It busts in all bad ass, with a FUNKed out bass line and congo rhythms. The B-3 bomber rolls in and strafes a loving, steady path through the rest of the song. Behind the tune the sounds of a party are going on, a la Marvin Gaye "What's Going On" but from the sounds of it much later in the evening. On its heels is a heavy organ rendition of the traditional "Wade in the Water," which has an Expressway feel. Soul is in the mix. Then, the Tease hits you. Harvey Mason wrote the Tease especially for this album, and it opens with a tribal drum intro that. Groovy and measured, it pushes you towards the floor, and gets your head moving and your hands clapping.
The steady groove continues, then the sound changes to a bluesy, improvised piano romp on Bakery Blues, which apparently was a highlight of the recording session, having emerged as an off-the-cuff ice breaker early on in the session. In the background you can hear the musicians yelling and singing. It sounds like a small revival, the kind of jam that you'd expect to hear in a smokey Chicago back room, or down south on a hot summer's night.
Fourth quarter. Swap Meet carries the blues into the Little Walter cover, "My Babe," which is based on the gospel favorite "This Train." The album finishes with the gorgeous, inspiring groove ballad "Luck." It's a tune that could stand on its own, separate from any genre. Dripping light, like sun coming through a cloudy day, Holloway really brings the sax to artistic heights on this one. The album finishes on a high, shimmering note.
It's tight, from start to finish. Upon successive listens, layers and layers emerge, quirks and undertones. In my humble estimation, a potential classic. The album is a blend of old and new, and in some ways represents the passing of a torch. By going back into the past, it reaffirms the future of jazz funk. A new chapter in funk is unfolding, carried by a diverse cast of musicians brimming with talent and vision. There goes the neighborhood indeed.
By J.R. Richards