Keyboardist Robert Walter is like the ultimate sixth man in basketball—a super-skilled player who comes off the bench to provide support and symmetry to a starting lineup. As the leader of his own 20th Congress quartet … well, he’s a great sixth man, and Spacesuit is the latest evidence thereof. A concept album of sorts inspired by the NASA program, it’s more an out-of-focus gaze skyward than a telescopic one.
“Nerva and Dumbo,” named for experimental rockets, gets Spacesuit off the launch pad decently, with Walter’s Fender Rhodes electric piano echoing Herbie Hancock’s vintage ’70s funk work within bassist Victor Little and drummer Simon Lott’s shell-game rhythms and guitarist Chris Alford’s chords and solos. Yet Walter can’t resist more modern embellishments, which ultimately keep his mission grounded. Synthesizers dot the pop-ish “Posthuman” and frenetic “13th Key,” and they take away from the keyboardist’s otherwise compelling contributions on various pianos, organs, and clavinet.
Programming also rears its head occasionally, making pieces such as “Chalk Giant” sound like an instrumental Devo tribute act. The most prominent part on “Current Futures” is a programmed white-noise drone that’s prime headache material, and the brief hidden closing track, “Electric Blanket,” is more annoying than entertaining.
Walter neither needs nor uses such gimmicks on his best recorded work, like Galactic drummer Stanton Moore’s 2010 release Groove Alchemy, or in his stellar live outings with Phish bassist Mike Gordon’s band. The keyboardist’s best efforts, like these, are steeped in funk, a style that builds from the bottom up rather than shooting for the sky like Spacesuit.