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Various Artists: Cedar Chest: The Cedar Walton Songbook

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“Technique + Taste” would accurately describe the strongest attributes of pianist Cedar Walton, but less is known about his composing talents, or as this new look backward calls it, his “Cedar Chest.” Hard to believe, it apparently marks the first time Walton, now 76, has been so honored: an entire CD devoted to his own tunes. An even better way would have been to feature Cedar playing on all ten tracks. But before you send any nasty e-mails to HighNote, keep in mind this collection puts into historical perspective Walton’s sophisticated lines, harmonies and tricky key changes.

Bookending the project, percussionist Sammy Figueroa puts “Firm Roots” and “Bolivia” through Latin and funk translations. Aided by the Orta Brothers — pianist Michael and bassist Nicky — it’s easy to see why both albums earned Grammy nominations, particularly “Bolivia,” with its stunning solos by soprano saxophonist John Michalak and muted trumpeter John Lovell. Walton is heard on a different pair by the supercharged guitarist/leader Larry Coryell, plus bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Drummond: “Fantasy in D” and “Newest Blues.” By the time “Newest” reaches its out chorus, the tempo is rushing (understandable excitement.) But it’s amazing to hear Walton slow down the juggernaut. David “Fathead” Newman is another leader heard twice, which accounts for the other two Walton performances: “Black” and “Cedar’s Blues.” The latter is especially effective because of the pleasing unison timbres of Newman’s tenor and Curtis Fuller’s trombone; Newman plays alto on “Black.”

Among the single contributions, “Simple Pleasure” features the sizzling alto sax of Vincent Herring and some interesting comping by pianist Mulgrew Miller. “Bleeker St. Theme” is best remembered for the outstanding solo playing of pianist Mike LeDonne. “Life’s Mosaic” has some unforgettable trumpeting by Dave Ballou and easily forgettable singing by the too-hip Mark Murphy. His intonation is erratic. That track is the CDs only vocal. Another “only” is the only ballad. (The other nine tempos are either up or way up.) Tenorist Houston Person knows well how to add soul to the song, “I’ll Let You Know.” So does composer Cedar Walton. That gift, plus the challenging changes he brings to his up tunes, endears him to all players who thrive on improvising. Would that the non-hip could appreciate all of Walton’s creations.

Originally Published