Robert Walter's 20th Congress :: 04.05.05 :: Rhythm Room :: Phoenix, AZ
Robert Walter has long been comfortable playing with many musicians in gloriously alchemical environments. His love for old jazz, soul and R&B records, and 60's organ-driven LP grooves drive his cinematic expeditions. Walter ignited his career in the acid jazz explosions of the Greyboy Allstars, a band that also featured a cat by the name of Mr. Karl Denson of the Tiny Universe, among others. Inside the improv kaleidoscope, he has worked with a rich cast including George Porter of The Meters, Headhunter Mike Clark, P-Funk, and James Brown vet, Fred Wesley. He has also collaborated with Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio of Galactic, and recently all three of them sat in on a tasty little supergroup called "Steve Kimock and Friends." Walter begs the question, "Just what is his take on improvisation?"
"I like doing a lot of different things," said Walter during an interview on the evening of the Phoenix gig. "I've always encouraged the guys in my band to do that too. Musicians grow a lot by playing in different situations, especially situations that make them uncomfortable - things that they're not quite prepared to do, things they want to learn something more about. All of those things inform your playing so that when you come back to your own situation, you have all of these skills that you've learned. It keeps the music fresh."
Robert Walter by Andrew Rakow
At the Rhythm Room, Robert Walter's 20th Congress played two-and-a-half hours of neck-breaking R&B mixed with deep jazzy tracks of hip shakin' soul. It was incredibly entertaining and original. Who needs a record player when you've got The Man blending something new and lethal right in front of you? "Adelita," "Inside Straight," and "Corry's" set the tone for the night with scorching sax-driven funk by Cochemea "Cheme" Gastelum fused with tastefully powerful licks from drummer Jason Smart (also of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey). Meanwhile, the always-generous Walter effortlessly dipped into the mix with impressive counterpoints as he shifted tones between a Hammond B-3, his Fender Rhodes, and throbbing bass notes to spur the trio into new space. On "Ju Ju," Walter even ventured into a wicked Keith Emerson universe by ripping through an escalating riff, spurring his musicians to dig a little deeper, a little funkier, and a little looser, while he straddled the fine line between excess and exquisite. As Walter led the band out from under this heavy groove a mammoth cover of the Talking Heads' "Swamp" followed, sending both band and audience into the first highpoint of the evening.
"When I'm playing the music," said Walter, "I'm thinking about the audience to some degree, but I'm mainly thinking about the other musicians and really having some kind of interaction so if I don't have anything new to tell them, it's kind of the same old story. They're not going to be engaged because they're not going to be surprised by what I'm playing. The goal is to constantly be surprising the musicians without sabotaging anything, but keeping it interesting by giving them little bits, to make them feel like they have to listen and they're excited by what you're doing. I want that from the people I play with too. So the bigger variety of that you can do, the better all that gets."
Robert Walter by Andrew Rakow
Walter is also a member of two other illustrious bands. The Frequinox has become the 'hipper than thou' funk expedition of the moment. The band features Walter, Will Bernard of TJ Kirk, Jazz Messenger and Headhunter Donald Harrison, and Galactic's Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio. If that isn't enough intrigue, Fantastic Four has recently returned to gigs featuring members of the Greyboy Allstars and Soulive: Walter, Gastelum, Eric Krasno, and Adam Deitch.
"In some situations I'm the leader, and in some situations there's no leader," said Walter. "Some situations, I'm working for someone else. Frequinox and Fantastic Four – everyone brings in ideas, and everyone's throwing stuff around at all times. There's a real stylistic direction. There's less need for someone to control the direction because we all understand what this music is and what the purpose of it is. You know what the boundaries are and all the players understand that. This is going to be 'this' kind of thing so we're all trying to serve a common purpose, and it is easier to do without there being a clear leader."
The Frequinox :: Moore & Walter
By Robert Foster
Fantastic Four recently returned to the stage at the South Paw in Brooklyn on March 31st. "South Paw was actually without incident. One of the first times where nothing was weird," said Walter. "For some reason, it's something that never fails to work no matter what else is going on, whereas with another band, it might cost you the gig. That combustible group of people - it just works every time. Two bands within the one band, and they involve communication. It's great. Another thing I've learned with these superstar lineups is that if you can get a couple of people involved in it who have a history together, who have a chemistry already, it makes the band gel way better."
At the Rhythm Room, "Easy Virtue" continued the groove onslaught as Walter crunched out a mean rock riff on his Roland that matched his attire for the evening – blue jeans, black Converse low tops, black coat, and a black Ramones T-shirt. The acid jazz mosh pit in front of the stage moved in a whirling frenzy before Walter eased the ecstasy down a notch, gliding the band into the bluesy space of "Impervious" while he moved to the Hammond. The tempo lazily floated on the air; Walter spiced the poignant voyage with a cool 'Thelonious Monk meets Booker T' staccato solo. "20% Body Fat" ended the First Set with Walter firing up a stutter-step Rhodes riff, echoed by Smart, Gastelum's ascending sax notes, and onto a climatic Walter juggernaut solo equipped with another dark bass undercurrent.
Robert Walter :: Rhythm Room :: 04.05 :: By Randy Ray
"When you first play with people, there's always that spark of excitement. You don't know what they're going to do next," said Walter. "I try to keep it like that even with people I've played with for years. And that's the best combination, because if you've
played with them for years, you do have a shorthand, a chemistry, but you could still be
surprising them. That's the idea."
The Second Set at the Rhythm Room served notice that the funk would get damned nasty, the space explored would turn multi-dimensional, and the trio interplay would remain richly complex and transcendent. Simply put, Robert Walter would step it up big time throughout the behemoth 85-minute rage fest as he found a more intense role in directing the sublime jazz apocalypse. Sometimes the organist relinquishes that role, as Walter does when playing with other prominent voices in the scene. An example of such responsibility shifts, and in turn Walter's ability to fill most any roll, is found when he plays as a member of Steve Kimock and Friends alongside Rodney Holmes on drums and Reed Mathis on bass guitar. In March, the quartet scorched the Earth in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Robert Walter with Kimock and Friends
By Jeremy Scott
"I'm basically working for Steve Kimock," said Walter. "I'm taking my cues from him. It's not that I'm not creatively involved, it's just that all my creative energy is going into trying to make the music as good for him or as good for what his vision of what it is – I'm taking cues from his aesthetic. I know what he's going to like and, hopefully, I can create things on the spot that fit in with his world view."
The Second Set opened with an energetic passage of spacey mood pieces with Cheme alternating between sax and flute. "Hardware" featured Hammond, sax, and drums riffing on a hot slice of R&B, which segued into the room-melting Stevie Wonder tour-de-force "Higher Ground." "Fathom 5" only continued the wonderful madness as the band hooked into a great stop-and-start time signature, complete with an uplifting riff-lock finish. This mojo trio was arguably the highpoint of the night.
As the band continued to discover fresh terrain, a New Orleans Cajun smoke seemed to linger in the air throughout the rest of the late set. "Don't Hate" showcased the whole band playing an escalating vignette filled with audio poetry – odd, measured, and perfect after the dance-a-thon theatrics of the earlier sequence. "Miles" closed the set with the band playing in-and-out of a furious Davis heavy metal funk Brew. Dueling solos shot back and forth between the trio as each member grinned.
Two encores followed: "Sweetie Pie" and the breakout of Jimmy Smith's "Alfredo," which included a great jazzy soundscape, another fantastic Cheme solo, and a long exceptional jam featuring Walter on the Hammond B-3 with Smart anchoring the band to a rhythmic swing base. The Smith coda was especially appropriate as the jazz great recently passed away in Scottsdale, Arizona.
"I'm just trying to learn all the time," said Walter. "I can learn a lot more by the people I come into contact with, the more musicians I have to deal with. When I play with Stanton Moore, he likes my tunes so we end up playing a lot of my songs. There's no black and white about any of that. All music I play is improvised. Everyone's personality is in it. Even in my own band – I don't want the guys to play exactly what I
tell them to play. I want them to play something of their own. I sort of cast the movie more than write the script."
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