RIP, Cedar Walton
by Seth Colter Walls | August 21, 2013
The lineup of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers band that ripped around the world from 1961 through 1964 had some legendary names holding down its various chairs, like Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Wayne Shorter on saxophone. But just as critical to the group's blazing, swinging success was pianist Cedar Walton, who passed away on August 19 at the age of 79. For confirmation of his essential gifts, just listen to his playing on two original tunes -- "Mosaic" and "Ugetsu" -- that he wrote for that legendary group.
You better believe Blakey dug those pieces, too, since they're the title tracks of the respective albums on which they were first found. But Walton wasn't just a talented composer: During "Shakey Jake" (another great Walton original), listen to how the pianist responds to Hubbard's fiery repetitive peals with some perfectly placed right-hand trills. Walton was a triple-threat: a great soloist and a great accompanist, as well as being the guy who wrote "Bolivia" and "Cedar's Blues."
Pianist Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus has said: "Many people think that Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins together is a definitive statement about swing." (Iverson himself admired Walton's solo on a 1973 version of "I'll Remember April" so much that he went to the trouble to transcribe it, as part of a great interview with Walton, which you can read here.) You can hear Walton's piano paired with Higgins' drumming over three volumes of mid-1980s live recordings, titled The Trio (Vols. 1, 2, and 3). The repertoire on offer therein covers a strong range of bop and post-bop styles, from Bird's "Relaxing at Camarillo" to Walton's own "Ojos de Rojo."
Whether you're a long-term Walton fan or are new to his art, the appended playlist should have something for you; it features 21 tunes found on 18 Walton-assisted albums. More than half of the songs are from his own pen. In addition to some of the pianist's more well-known appearances, we've included some rarities, like Ornette Coleman's "Is It Forever," and recordings that John Coltrane cut with the pianist during sessions for the Giant Steps and [Coltrane Jazz] albums (they didn't make the original LPs, but appear on the expanded reissue versions). Hear all this and more -- including some sweet duos with bassist Ron Carter -- and celebrate the legacy of one of hard bop's greatest talents.