Robert Walter's 20th Congress | 02.27.04 | Stella Blue | Asheville, NC

Everyone says change is good, and I agree. No one enjoys being stuck in a rut. The monotony of any situation that has become uniform and static can be overwhelming. Especially in music. Many of the popular bands today have pigeonholed themselves into a style or situation that now lacks any of their former creativity, if any even initially existed. That's why change is good... especially in music. Robert Walter's 20th Congress seems to live and create by this idea.

Robert Walter by Andrew Paynter
On Friday, February 27th, the Congress unveiled their current lineup as a trio to the people of Asheville, North Carolina at Stella Blue. Speaking of changes, things have been in constant metamorphosis for Robert Walter and company over the past year or more. Around that time, the band introduced a heavyweight lineup with the inclusion of Joe Russo on drums, Mike Fratantuno on bass, and Will Bernard on guitar. Tough, huh? Those guys in addition to Mr. Walter himself, and his funky friend, Cochemea Gastelum on saxophone makes for a ridiculous line-up. Then with the help of some old band members and friends, George Sluppick, Chris Stillwell, and Chuck Prada, released Giving Up The Ghost, a mind expanding issue of electro-jazz-groove that is a must have. It's a bit more produced then what you might expect, but Robert admitted that he wanted to use the studio as an instrument in itself. Again, a continuous mutation of sound and style.

Now things have once again transformed for this San Diego-based group of funksters. A trio. Keys, sax, and drums. That's it. Trust me, that's all you need with these guys. While Joe, Will, and Mike are away with other projects, Robert and Cochemea have taken to the road with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey drummer Jason Smart. This band cooks. Folks might not be expecting much with only a trio, but there is nothing sparse about the sound these guys are laying down.

Jason Smart by Jaci Downs
Around 10 p.m. the line outside of Stella Blue got a little thicker and the bar inside got a whole lot busier. You can never say that people in Ash-Vegas don't like having a good time. The club filled up quite nicely, although I had hoped that there would be a packed house to witness this groove spectacle.

The band took to the stage with a short, jazzy introduction by Robert and then took to their set with fury. Throughout the eclectic evening of music, the band played some older favorites--"Freshmen 10," "Boogaloo Boogie," and "2% Body Fat"--and also a few new tunes including "Circle Limit" from Giving Up The Ghost, an original called "34 Small," and a new cover, "Along Came John" by soul-jazz legend Big John Patton. After an encore of a great funky original, "Easy Virtue," the show came to a close.

Hands down, these guys are some of the best at what they do. Robert possesses one of the most fluid and distinct styles in music today. He alternates between breezy, spiraling notes on piano and Fender Rhodes to bouncy, blues drenched screams and wails on his organ. Also, in the absence of a bassist, he has begun playing the bass lines on his organ like Hammond heroes of the past Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff. Just another testament to his amazing abilities behind the keys.

Cochemea Gastelum is an electrifying alto sax player and flautist. His hard-bop-infused solos are reminiscent of saxophone pioneer and idol Eddie Harris. To be honest, I had seen him perform a few times before with the Congress, but truly grasped a love of his sound and style after hearing a bootleg of an Allstar Tribute Jam to Eddie Harris and Les McCann's Swiss Movement. If you are unfamiliar with this album, you must pick it up. One of the finest examples of improvised soul-jazz ever laid down. Cochemea's solos are every bit as exciting as Harris' and this is 35 years later.

Cochemea Gastelum
The most recent addition to the band, Jason Smart, is an astounding jazz drummer. I was unfamiliar with him before this show, but was pleasantly surprised and pleased. He established and maintained a solid foundation of funk underneath Robert and Cochemea's vibrant soloing. And he appeared in an old Art Blakey t-shirt, which speaks volumes in itself.

Overall, it was an amazing evening of music. It's refreshing to see a group of musicians who are not afraid to mix things up and seek new avenues of expression. Most bands would have chosen to take some time off when realizing they don't have a full lineup. Not these guys. Why stop? Robert Walter's 20th Congress can't even slow down. They maintain a perpetual desire to create and perform new, evolving music. I can only hope for one constant with this band--that they don't ever stop changing.

Rob Bressler
JamBase | North Carolina
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[Published on: 3/9/04]

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