ELECTRIC CITY : Remaining in New Orleans after Katrina, the Robert Walter Trio honed its sound during impromptu generator-powered jam sessions.
The Robert Walter trio brings the best of the New Orleans jazz scene to the Kuumbwa
By Andrew Gilbert
Any musician who moves to New Orleans can expect to pay some dues, but organist Robert Walter got far more than he bargained for when he relocated to the Crescent City from his native San Diego in the summer of 2004.
A founding member of seminal groove outfit the Greyboy Allstars, Walter is a funk-loving Hammond B3 player who was drawn to New Orleans by both the music scene and the relatively affordable housing stock. He had made enough of a name for himself with his own acid jazz combo 20th Congress that he decided to delve deeper into the supremely grooving world of New Orleans R&B.
"We were living in San Diego and we wanted to buy a house and got priced out," says Moore, who performs on Thursday with his trio featuring bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich, best known as the rhythm section for the seminal New Orleans funk combo Astral Project.
"I'd been coming to New Orleans for years, for tours and Jazzfest. When I told Galactic drummer Stanton Moore I was having trouble finding a house, he said, 'Why don't you move down here?' It always seemed like a Never Never Land to me, but I talked my wife into it."
When Katrina hit less than a year later, they were fortunate to have bought a house on higher ground, and suffered only roof damage that forced them to relocate for several months. Singleton's basement flooded and Vidacovich's house was seriously damaged, but the trio started working again almost as soon as the lights went back on. In some cases, even sooner.
"Gigs were one of the first things that came back," Walter says. "Not near the strength of pre-Katrina, but a lot of people were out of town, and players who were here could often get work. I was playing at the Maple Leaf Bar just weeks after Katrina. They hooked up a generator before electricity was back. Things are slowly getting better now. A lot of people are starting to come back. The last JazzFest felt pretty normal to me."
Walter forged a strong musical bond with Singleton and Vidacovich through a weekly gig that amounted to trial by fire. The organist passed the test, and the combo turned into a formidable working band.
"The philosophy was: there were no tunes, so how well do you think on your feet?" Walter says. "Sometimes it was disastrous, and sometimes brilliant. The first time I thought they were testing me. They called terrible keys for the piano, at really hard tempos, then I would do the same thing to them. After that we got along great."
Walter's New Orleans trio has turned into a leading force in disseminating Crescent City rhythms in a jazz context. He started writing tunes designed around Singleton and Vidacovich's rhythmic flexibility.
They recently released an irresistibly grooving session for Palmetto, Cure All, a manifesto for handling adversity with style and a testament to the city's continuing vitality. Singleton anchors the music with his propulsive bass work, and Vidacovich is a wonder of rhythmic invention, a trap set innovator whose mastery of second-line and post-bop beats has inspired several generations of New Orleans drummers.
"I was a big fan of James and Johnny's work since they played with James Booker, one of my favorite pianists," says Walter, who moves between B3, Fender Rhodes, piano and Clavinet on the CD. "They're the embodiment of a lot of my interests, playing traditional jazz, free jazz, funk and everything in between."
THE ROBERT WALTER TRIO appears Thursday, July 24, at 8pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 advance/$23 door. (831.427.2227, www.kuumbwajazz.org)
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