by Piotr Michalowski
Pianist Cedar Walton was one of many promising Bud Powell-inspired pianists working in New York when he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1961. He had already made a name for himself as a member of two of the finest units of the time - J. J. Johnson's Quintet and the Jazztet - but the three years that he spent with one of the best editions of Blakey's famed quintet took him all over the world and brought him to the attention of listeners and musicians alike. Having established his credentials, he quickly came into demand as a sideman and soon went out on his own. For more than three decades Walton has been one of the most original and consistent of the hard bop pianists, working with musicians of all generations, leading his own units, and recording almost forty albums under his own name.
While still true to its early bop roots, Walton's piano playing continues to evolve as he assimilates more progressive rhythms and harmonies in step with the times. He is a generous leader, who offers much solo space to others. When I last heard him in Toronto, he was obviously pleased with Dave Young's bass playing and offered him so much solo room that one would have thought that Walton was the sideman and not the leader.
Walton has a magnificent sense of form. Whether playing solo or leading a larger combo, he structures the music and avoids ordinary blowing sessions. His own improvisations are logically constructed with flowing lines, avoiding mere riffs and effects. This comes as no surprise, for Walton is not only a fabulous pianist but also one of the best composers in modern jazz. He established his writing credentials under Art Blakey with such classic tunes as "Ugetsu" and "Mosaic," and his "Bolivia" has become a standard.
With its unusual structure and catchy riff, "Bolivia" may be his best-known piece, but Walton has penned many far more interesting compositions: "N.P.S.," "Fiesta Espaol," "Insight," "Shaky Jake," "Twilight Waltz," and countless others. One can only hope that he will play as many of them as possible when he comes to the Bird of Paradise on Friday and Saturday, April 5 and 6, to work with two of Detroit's finest musicians, bassist Ralph Armstrong and drummer Kareem Riggins.
[Originally published in April, 2002.]