Discussions about jazz education most often focus on the university programs that have blossomed all over the world in recent decades and have had a formidable impact on the very nature of the music. As important as these are in today’s musical environment, in many towns such as Ann Arbor the road to a jazz vocation begins earlier, sometimes even at the elementary level. The late Louis Smith, a bebop trumpeter of uncommon musical and pedagogical talent, taught in elementary, middle, and high schools here and has been succeeded by other talented teachers. Perhaps best known is the jazz program at Community High School (CHS), led for many years by Michael Grace, who was followed in 2008 by Jack Wagner, focusing on small group playing and improvisation rather than on big band work.
In 1996, three CHS grads moved to Toronto to continue their education at the jazz department of Humber College. They went in different directions after graduation but kept in contact over the years: drummer Dave Brophy ended up in Boston; tenor saxophonist Ben Janssen returned to Ann Arbor but then settled in Japan; and trumpeter Justin Walter came back, moved away several times, and is now here again. Driven by holiday family reunions, all three come together again on December 22 at the Kerrytown Concert House, in the company of pianist Rick Roe and bassist Kurt Krahnke.
Though Walter lives in Ann Arbor, some aspects of his multifaceted career may not be well known to local listeners. Young though he is, his peripatetic history is impressive: he has lived, played, and studied in Toronto, Montreal, and New York and has performed on trumpet in a wide range of local bands, from the 1920s dance music of P.O.R.K. to progressive rock bands and the innovative Afro-funk of NOMO to the modern traditional big band jazz of the Paul Keller Orchestra. For the last few years he was part of Dan Bennett’s high-flying avant-gardish Friday night jazz quintet at the Rush Street nightclub.
But Walter also inhabits another quite different creative space, seemingly separate from his jazz trumpet improvisations. For some time, he has been playing on an electronic valve instrument (EVI), an analog synthesizer from the late Eighties controlled by breath that goes onto a membrane (but not through it), and controllers that mimic trumpet valves. He records segments of sound, combines them, and sometimes overdubs trumpet or keyboard, creating unique electronic compositions of varying density, timbre, and melodic content. These recordings and his performances of this music attract a very different audience from his more mainstream work.
And yet there is an artistic unity to all of this. When Walter improvises on jazz standards he does so with great attention to expression, using a sparingly warm sound with just a hint of melancholy, and his melodic lines, eschewing bravura, have a logic and purpose that are structurally parallel to his electronic compositions. In the company of old friends, this will be a creative reunion.