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Conversation Piece 

Keyboardist Robert Walter moved to New Orleans and promptly immersed himself in the city's jam scene.

It's 10:30 p.m. and a small crowd gathered at d.b.a. is listening to Astral Project drummer Johnny Vidacovich and Robert Walter -- of Greyboy Allstars and Robert Walter's 20th Congress fame -- perform what he refers to as "soul-jazz." Walter is behind his Hammond B-3 onstage, keeping an eye on Vidacovich, whose drum kit rests on the floor below. The wooden room and the low lighting accentuate their thick, warm sound.

Vidacovich's playing is like an interpretive dance, and Walter watches, nodding his head, following Vidacovich's kava-based rhythm with occasional treble flourishes from the right side of the keyboard. Vidacovich picks up the tempo and moves fluidly across his kit; Walter, with his shaggy, surfer-haircut head down, adds licks that go so smoothly with Vidacovich's rhythm that the spontaneity excites the crowd. He brings the melody to a crescendo, inciting applause. Walter smiles and nods down at Vidacovich, his childhood hero. The Astral Project drummer acknowledges him making eye contact, then continues with his rhythmically bobbing stare into nowhere.

Six months ago, the 34-year-old Walter moved from San Diego to New Orleans partially to make a pilgrimage to the hometown of other heroes, James Booker and Professor Longhair, but mostly because the music scene encourages improvisation. "Crowds actually want you to improv," he says while on break from recording a solo album at the Truck Farm Studio in Bywater. "In New Orleans you can play jazz and people will dance; that exists in Europe but not in any other American cities."

Despite the encouraging audiences, Walter admits he gets terrified before a show, and sometimes paces nervously, then spends the first couple of minutes of the performance so "freaked out," in his words, he avoids facing the audience because he doesn't want to be seen. He used to deal with his nerves by starting every gig with finger exercises, but he stopped in order to save his energy for the show.

Whether playing with the 20th Congress or less familiar musicians, he contends, the musical interaction runs more smoothly if he isn't trying to rush into improvisations, which he compares to a conversation. "Trying to have a conversation with people won't work if you're saying too much or too little," Walter asserts. "I want it to be in the moment, feeding enough new ideas without stepping on toes. You want to surprise (the audience) so it sounds immediate. If I'm in a mood, I want that mood to come out, or I want Johnny -- or whoever I'm playing with -- to initiate ideas."

According to Vidacovich, having ideas with Walter is easy. Playing with him, he says, "is inspiring, it's new, it's fun. He lets you express yourself in the context of the concept."

Sometimes, though, the musicians aren't in the mood to converse, which poses a problem for artists who make their name improvising. Walter concedes that these nights generally aren't the best gigs, but that he finds ways to make something happen. "You end up creating the illusion of emotions," he admits. "You end up showing anger and that you're tired. But I don't want to."

He does, however, have ways to deal with the problem: "I try to listen to music. Jimmy Smith always makes me want to play." Onstage, he listens to the rhythm section for ideas for a jam. Vidacovich says one of Walter's strengths is being a good listener. "That's 99 percent of the reason we're playing together, because it's all about listening."

For fans and critics, the downside of jamming crops up when the musical conversation runs dry. The ensuing noodling feeds the complaint that there's little valuable going on. "That's the tricky part," Walter says. "Most (musicians) have a common ground, so you have to listen for a part in the conversation where the person has no more new ideas, then, like in a normal conversation, you say something new to move the conversation along. The longer you play, the more things you have to say. Of course, mistakes are made, but you move through it. It's important to pick musicians you're comfortable with."

Since moving to town, he's played with George Porter Jr., James Singleton and June Yamagishi in Johnny Vidacovich's Trio; Stanton Moore, Donald Harrison, Rob Mercurio and Will Bernard in Frequinox; and Tim Green in a trio with Moore. Most of these musicians are accompanying him in some form on the upcoming album.

The musical conversation Walter has with them is what mollifies his shyness, rendering him calm enough to join the musical dialogue. During a post-interview cigarette break, he explains that Frequinox played together naturally in a "supportive way" from the get-go, "supportive" not being a Hallmark moment, but one in which each musician plays the notes so that there is space to rest on. Playing in these circumstances is like having a conversation in which each participant is understood, there is no judgment, there is no crowding. In short, it's a Zen thing. "It's a place where everyone plays the note with the same feeling of rhythm," Walter says. "When the groove is good like this, it's a whole world you can live in."

click to enlarge "Crowds actually want you to improv," Robert Walter says while on break from recording a solo album.
  • "Crowds actually want you to improv," Robert Walter says while on break from recording a solo album.
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