Cedar’s Blues

With the passing of Cedar Walton we have lost one of our great blues pianists.

Here are four choruses for Cedar: With Clifford Jordan, With Ron Carter, Critic’s Blues, and You, Too, Can Play “Cedar’s Blues.” 

1. With Clifford Jordan

Clifford was a bruiser, a lyrical tough-guy, yet also more interested in the ineffable and the avant-garde than later Walton tenors like George Coleman or Bob Berg.

Not every record Clifford made as a leader works in every respect; all of them are at least interesting. Cedar was the pianist on many of Clifford’s first and most conventional records, including Starting Time, Spellbound, and Bearcat. The mid-Sixties tribute to Leadbelly, These Are My Roots, brings some old-time theatre and surreality into the mix.

However, Clifford and Cedar’s most celebrated period began with one of Jordan’s best albums, The Glass Bead Games from 1973. Two quartets—Stanley Cowell, Bill Lee, and Billy Higgins or Cedar Walton, Sam Jones, and Billy Higgins—offer a marvelous document of a kind of post-Coltrane black music that honors the Aquarian Age yet still has tough hard-bop roots.

The Cedar-Sam-Billy trio became known as “The Magic Triangle.” There’s quite a few discs of them backing Clifford, including a lot of Steeplechase albums from a European tour. Admittedly, some of those are a bit rough around the edges. A looser studio document than Glass Bead Games is The Pentagon with Ray Mantilla added on percussion on two tunes and excellent recorded sound. There are also fabulous live sets with Tootie Heath (Half Note) or Louis Hayes (Live at Boomer’s Vol. 1 and 2, now on CD as Naima).

Taken as a collection, the Jordan-Walton canon from the Seventies is some of the best jazz ever recorded. I wrote above that it’s “celebrated” but my suspicion is that only a few connoisseurs know these albums.

If I had to pick only one from that collaboration for a desert isle, it would be Jordan’s Night of the Mark VII. Talk about a blues band! It’s a live date in France and three of the five pieces are literal blues. The legend is that everyone was drunk. This is quite possible: everything seems even greasier than usual. But clearly no one is too drunk to play.

Thanks to Ben Street for turning me on to this wildly swinging version of “Blue Monk.” Cedar’s busy comping interlaces with the preaching tenor in unexpected ways. I don’t know what to say about the bass and drums here. Sam Jones and Billy Higgins are impossible. They are to die for.

The piano solo begins with a few phrases of the very deepest blues. But then Cedar starts running a bunch of double-time licks. It’s effective—the audience responds—but I saw no reason to transcribe or learn that part. Indeed, these double-time passages point toward Cedar’s weak point: occasional capitulation to glossy effect, despite his ability to play the rawest sonnet.

Of course, what do I know? It’s not like I could have gotten up there with Sam and Billy and showed Cedar how it was done.

Blue Monk 1

Blue Monk 2

Blue Monk 3

 

 

2. With Ron Carter

It doesn’t matter whether it’s an album by Miles Davis, Hank Jones, Jobim, Don Sebesky, Joe Henderson, Wes Montgomery, Roberta Flack, or hundreds of others: within a couple of bars you can always tell it is “My man Ron Carter on the bass.”

Ron Carter and Cedar Walton were together on all sorts of classic records from the Sixties led by Joe Henderson, Eddie Harris, Milt Jackson, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, and others. In the Eighties they resumed frequent live and studio activity, including important videos with Art Farmer and Billy Higgins at Sweet Basil, and with Freddie Hubbard and Lenny White at the Vanguard.

I saw them trio at Sweet Basil in ’92 with Higgins, in what I believe was their last performance as a group. At the time, I thought it was easily the greatest straight-ahead jazz trio I’d ever seen. (21 years later I probably still think so.) A great record made that week with Stanley Turrentine, More Than a Mood, showcases that unit as a high-class rhythm section.

For some reason the two trio CDs made a year earlier under the collective name Sweet Basil Trio, My Funny Valentine and St. Thomas, have never made such a positive impression on me. I remember the group being much looser a year later. Perhaps the second engagement was freer because they weren’t recording? At any rate, on record I prefer some of this era’s trio albums with David Williams. They’re generally a little less top-heavy with arrangements, always have a great Cedar tune or two in the mix, and are more concise overall.

However, that’s not to say that the Sweet Basil Trio isn’t essentially fabulous. The highlight of the two discs is probably the blues “John Paul Jones.” This trio could have played nothing but blues and I would have been completely happy.

Still, the album I return to more is Cedar Walton – Ron Carter – Jack DeJohnette. In our interview, David Hazeltine observes that “Cedar can play with almost anybody.” Cedar’s absolutely unruffled by this unruly “stadium jazz” situation. That same weekend in ’86, Cedar, Ron, and Jack also backed Benny Golson and Pharoah Sanders on another entertaining listen, the Coltrane tribute This is for You, John. Cedar and Ron always swing, no matter what. (Jack sounds great, too.)

As a leader, Ron likes organized situations. So did Cedar. The common roots for both are the Fifties music of the Modern Jazz Quartet and Ahmad Jamal: black music with tight arrangements and references to European classical music. There’s active bass motion; drums are important but subtle.

(“Subtle” may not be the right word. Connie Kay and Vernel Fournier were obviously deeply swinging to anyone who knows how to listen. But apparently there are those who think Billy Higgins didn’t do that much, either.)

The collaborative duo album of Ron Carter and Cedar Walton, Heart and Soul, is especially important as a document of how comfortable they are playing without drums. In his amusing liner notes, Cedar noted that they had to work on it.

Honestly, I doubt they had to work on it that much. Ron and Cedar don’t play any different than usual, at least as far as I can tell. These two beats are absolutely indomitable, but it’s fun to hear them move the air around without any percussion to influence placement. A particularly telling moment is a chorus of simple half notes on the title tune. These aren’t just any half notes: these are Cedar’s and Ron’s half notes.

For Ron’s blues “Telephone” the composer takes a walking solo with nice piano sprinkles, then Cedar rolls out some elegant gutbucket. His left hand is sometimes too quiet to transcribe accurately, so I made educated guesses. Those gentle but punchy southpaw offbeats may be related to Red Garland. But it’s perhaps even more helpful to compare them to Billy’s Higgins’s snare commentary, full of so many ghosted yet essential notes.

Telephone 1

Telephone 2

Telephone 3

 

3. Critic’s Blues

David Williams says in our interview: “In the back of my mind, although I try not to go there, I wonder sometimes if Cedar was acknowledged and recognized the way he should have been in the critics’ polls.”

This made me curious, although less about the polls than about major print coverage of Cedar’s greatest years.

I did a search of “Cedar Walton” in the complete New Yorker archives, and as far as I could find, Whitney Balliett—for all his excellence in other ways—never seemed to have reviewed Cedar or written anything tellingly positive throughout the Seventies and Eighties when Cedar was at his height, consistently playing some of the best piano in New York City. If I’m correct, this is a gaffe—especially since Balliett did not limit himself to covering only the “flavor of the month.”

The Village Voice was probably kinder: Gary Giddins wrote excellent notes for Live at Boomer’s, so presumably he wrote about Cedar in the mag too, at least for the listings. I definitely remember a nice piece in the Voice by Stanley Crouch about Cedar, Ron, and Billy.

While the NY Times covered Cedar on several occasions over the last couple of decades, the Seventies and Eighties were more of a question mark. I don’t entirely trust the online search mechanism, but it appears that Cedar, Sam Jones, and Higgins were reviewed only once, when they backed five saxophonists at a jam session in 1972. In that review, John S. Wilson is not really interested in how the rhythm section plays.

As I said to David Williams, I was disappointed in the NYT Cedar Walton obit. Previously I wrote on DTM:

…The NY Times obit by William Yardley fumbled the ball a bit. I, at least, don’t think of Art Blakey first when I think of Cedar Walton! I think of Cedar Walton when I think of Cedar Walton. Also, Cedar rehearsed with Coltrane a little bit and made a single hard-to-find record with Josh Redman, but surely other names deserve mention before Trane or Josh. The three most obvious are Sam Jones, Clifford Jordan, and George Coleman…

The Times obits are usually very good. I’m complaining only because the Times really is the most important daily record of New York culture. Cedar lead marvelous trios and quartets in town for the last 40 years that were required listening for any fan or student. Who gave more to New York culture than Cedar Walton?

The rather brief Ben Ratliff NYT obit for Higgins mentions Cedar but not David Williams. Perhaps to make up for the short obit, NYT followed up with a rather ham-handed tribute to Higgins by Mike Zwerin that bears out David’s comments about its excessive focus on Ornette Coleman and Charles Lloyd.

It would be interesting to collate the critical coverage of Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins together from the late Sixties onward: not just the New York periodicals, but all the jazz magazines as well. My gut tells me they missed this one until Higgins was gone and Cedar was an elder statesman (again, excepting Giddins and Crouch).

4. You, Too, Can Play “Cedar’s Blues”

I was shocked when Jamey Aebersold was given a NEA Jazz Master award this year. There’s a long list of players I’d nominate before giving it to an educator, especially since I’ve always been doubtful of those Aebersold play-a-longs that have proliferated like crab grass.

After Cedar died, though, I remembered that his Aebersold play-a-long had Cedar, Ron, and Billy.

To my surprise, it’s been a revelation. Ron and Billy are, after all, Ron and Billy no matter what they were doing—even tracking basic stuff for students.

I’ve been learning a lot. Playing “Cedar’s Blues” with them is not easy!

With modern technology, you can modify the tracks. I have a playlist of “Firm Roots” in twelve keys and tempos, and I’m baffled by how swinging Billy’s uptempo ride is even after it’s been artificially slowed down.

These cats possessed the mysteries, and the tape captured them in motion. Thanks to Jamey Aebersold for getting this done for posterity.

For Cedar Walton:

1) Interview with Cedar Walton (2010)

2) Interview with David Williams

3) Interview with David Hazeltine

4) Cedar’s Blues (essay)