Robert Walter today, itching to play live again.Photo by Julia Mordaunt/Courtesy of Calabro Music Media
Quick, think of a jazz instrument. What is it? Chances are you might have a mental picture of a saxophone, trumpet, or drums. Or even a piano. But that black and white keyboard’s kissin’ cousin, the organ (if thought of at all) is probably way down the list. After all, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk are far better known names than Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, or Richard Holmes.
Musician Robert Walter—skilled at playing all sorts of electric organs and keyboards like the Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hammond B3 organ, Clavinet, and Mini Moog—certainly feels that way. He thinks it just comes down to perception.
“There was something about the organ that was always seen as second class in the jazz world. First, it’s electric, and I think jazz guitar players [suffer from comparison] as well. It might be seen as too rock and roll or new,” he offers.
“Also, a lot of the organ records are based in the blues and perceived as less high-minded or that the records were just made to listen to in a bar. But that’s totally wrong. Jazz is connected to blues and soul and gospel and R&B, and that’s what blew my mind about soul-funk jazz.”
There’s also something about the organ sound that instantly manifests the period of the late ‘60s though mid ‘70s. Walter definitely had that in mind when he recorded his 1996 solo debut, Spirit of ’70. It's being reissued May 7 on limited edition 180-gram purple smoke vinyl and digital formats from Royal Potato Family.
“It’s been out of print for a long time, and I always get a lot of requests for it. It’s one of my favorites because it’s the first thing I did. And it represented me finding an identity [outside] the group,” Walter says. “So it’s time to dust it off and put it out again!”
The group Walter refers to is the Greyboy Allstars. Walter is a co-founding member of the San Diego-based jazz-soul-funk revivalists which formed in 1993. They originally came together as a “house band” for some recordings with DJ Greyboy, and the Allstars included Karl Denson (saxophone), Elgin Park (guitar, real name Mike Andrews), Chris Stillwell (bass) and Zak Najor (drums). The current lineup has Aaron Redfield on drums.
Robert Walter at his Fender Rhodes during the original mid-'90s sessions for "Spirit of '70."
Photo by Julia Mordaunt/Courtesy of Calabro Music Media
idea inspired by the jazz albums that the Blue Note and Prestige labels would put out in the ‘50s and ‘60s and featured players in interchangeable as leaders, group members, or featured sidemen. Walter says the fluidity of roles in various recording and playing projects is something that still very much appeals to him, as practiced in his own career.
“I get really bored just doing one thing. And playing different roles helps you learn a lot more about music in general. If I’m a leader on the session or gig, I behave in a different way than I would as a sideman,” he says.
“Actually now, I’m more sympathetic to the leader! I also think it’s important to play more than one instrument so you have that perspective. And a lot of my heroes were always sidemen. Looking at the album [credits], you start connecting the dots of who was playing with who. It satisfied the music nerd thing in me.”
The Allstars would do the same, with the idea of members putting out “solo” records with the rest of the band backing, plus an invited player or two from the previous generation who’d inspired them. In the case of Spirit of ’70, Walter chose saxophonist Gary Bartz. In the press release for the reissue, Walter notes that he truly helped “elevate the music beyond just a throwback funk tribute.”
“When we [the Allstars] started playing this music, nobody else was. But it was still a tribute act. And if we could have been half as good as the music on Grant Green’s Live at the Lighthouse, we would have been ecstatic! That was the goal to emulate,” he says.
“But when we started working with people from the older generation who were on the original records, we realized we’re missing the point. They were making music that was contemporary to them, not of the past. Gary was so in the moment during the recording, and it was truly him and his voice. Just soaking that up was [very educational] to us. I didn’t have to be Jimmy Smith. It could be unique to me. Don’t imitate the thing. Become the thing.”
At first, the group was nervous playing with a hero (“We were highly underqualified!” Walter laughs). But the sessions in DJ Greyboy’s living room studio soon became relaxed as the players improvised and fed off each other. During “Impervious,” listeners can catch someone opening the front door, unaware there was a session in place. The resulting eight tracks include songs penned by Walter, various Allstars, and two covers: “Jan Jan” (The Fabulous Counts) and “Little Miss Lover” (Jimi Hendrix).
Asked if he would change anything about the actual recording with a quarter century of hindsight, Walter gives a firm no. “I find the naivete of it endearing. I mean, you can tell I’m green and just figuring it out. I hadn’t even been playing organ that long at the time,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me like some older recordings too. The band was in a good place, we’d be touring, and we had chemistry. So it’s aged well to me.”
As to what he hopes the next year will bring in terms of his career, whether with the Greyboy Allstars or his other group, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, he says he’s itching just to get back onstage. And not just in front of audiences, but beside other players.
“I just want to play with people. I miss the interaction with the band. The past year has been a great time to just clean up some weak points in my playing and really focus on [wood]shedding, but now I’m ready to get out there,” he says. “I’ve never been so well practiced in my life!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.