Cedar Walton may not be a household name to everyone, but in his half-century as a professional jazz pianist, Walton’s talents have been called upon by almost every major jazz musician.
Born in Dallas in 1934, Walton studied music at the University of Denver. It was there, while playing at the Denver Club, that he first worked with visiting luminaries like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.
It was not long before he moved to New York where he was playing with Lou Donaldson, Gigi Gryce and Sonny Rollins. A stint in the Army took him to Germany where he worked with Leo Wright and Eddie Harris. By 1958, he was back in the United States and touring with J.J. Johnson. His first recording, with Kenny Dorham on Orin Keepnews’ Riverside label, soon followed. He recorded with Johnson as well and then joined the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet for two years.
In 1961, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, which at that time included Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller and Freddie Hubbard. He left Blakey in 1964, although he returned in 1973 for a tour of Japan, and finally made his first album as a leader in 1966 for Prestige.
Prestige liked him so much they hired him as their house pianist from 1967-69. He then organized a bebop quartet, often with Clifford Jordan on tenor sax, that performed as Eastern Rebellion for many years. In the ‘70s, he experimented with funk and the electric piano in a group called Soundscapes. In the ‘80s, he worked with the Timeless All-Stars, a sextet that included Harold Land, Bobby Hutcherson, Curtis Fuller, Buster Williams and his long-time associate, the late Billy Higgins.
This still leaves out his various gigs with Abbey Lincoln, Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan, Milt Jackson, Ron Carter, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes as well as his long list of original compositions like “Mosaic,” “Promised Land,” “Fantasy in D, Firm Roots,” “Bolivia” and “Clockwise,” all of which have become jazz standards.
Most importantly, all of these great players want Cedar to accompany them because he is among the greatest living jazz pianists. His technique is virtuosic, allowing him to improvise flowing strings of bebop lines at a breakneck speed that would daunt anyone other than an Art Tatum or Bud Powell. It is a pure delight to hear someone’s mind and fingers thinking and playing with this kind of speed, elegance and lyricism.
For his current gig at Yoshi’s, he will be bringing along some equally great sideplayers, most notably trombonist Steve Turre. Turre was born in Omaha, but grew up in the Bay Area playing in the Latin aggregations of Carlos Santana and the Escovedo Brothers. Like Cedar, he also worked with Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson and Art Blakey. He is probably best known, though, as the trombonist since 1984 with the Saturday Night Live Television Band. Equally noteworthy is his work on conch shells, which he can play with the same facility he applies to the sliphorn. You have to see and hear it to believe it.
Cedar Walton, along with Steve Turre on trombone and conch shells, Vincent Herring on saxophone, David Williams on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, appears Wednesday, Nov. 8 through Sunday, Nov. 12 at Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. For more information call 238-9200 or see www.yoshis.com.