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Robert Walters Neighborhood

I caught Robert Walter at his San Diego home during a brief break in his touring schedule. The main thrust of conversation rests on his second solo release, There Goes the Neighborhood. The album moves from upbeat funk groove numbers to loose jams and tunes grounded in a more straightforward jazz mode. Aiding Walter in this latest endeavor is a who’s who of jazz and r&b veterans including drummer Harvey Mason (Headhunters), saxophonist Red Holloway (Jack McDuff Group), bassist Chuck Rainey (The Crusaders, Aretha Franklin) and Phil Upchurch (Ramsey Lewis, Curtis Mayfield) plus 20th Congress percussionist Chuck Prada. Of course, other topics popped up such as life leading the 20th Congress, his musical background and how to move forward as a player while paying respect to the past. But what struck me the most after I hung up the telephone was Walter’s insistence that his work onstage and off it is a matter of constant improvement. This wasn’t a low self-esteem situation or even a bout of immodesty. He truly viewed himself as a work-in-progress, with the overall goal to grow as a performer, bandleader, improviser and writer during each subsequent gig and recording session.

John Patrick Gatta: Let’s go to the obvious question. What led you to make a second solo album?

Robert Walter: What happened is the producer of the new record, Brian Brinkerhoff, contacted me and he had an idea to do a record with me as a leader with older session players. There was a whole list of names that we were thinking about and I finally picked the guys who are on it for various reasons, because I wanted to play with them or I thought they’d go well together or things like that. He had some money to record it because he was working at a label at the time called EMusic.

Once I got that call I felt like I couldn’t say no to the opportunity. So, we made the record and, subsequently, it was bought by Premonition Records, which is the label it came out on. It wasn’t what I was planning on doing for the next record, it just sort of came to me and I thought “Wow! I could play with Harvey Mason, Chuck Rainey and those guys.’ So, I felt like I had to do it.

JPG: Tell me about your association with Brian. How did he pick you? Did he know you prior to this?

Walter: He’s just been doing these records for EMusic and he had an interest in jazz/funk music. He had heard about me. He just started talking to me about it. We’ve talked about doing some other records too, but nothing has come together 100 % yet. He’d just heard my records and was a fan.

JPG: Now, nothing against you, but the other players on the album are described in the press release as Trailblazers, veterans of the music scene more so than you are. When you came in to the studio, did you have to establish your credibility with them?

Walter: Yeah, I was pretty nervous going in. I played with a lot of musicians from that generation. It wasn’t as bad. On my first solo record, “Spirit of 70,” Gary Bartz was on it. He was a great jazz saxophonist. He played with Miles Davis. That was one the first guys that was really from that school that I had gotten to play with.

By this time I had played with Fred Wesley, Melvin Sparks. A lot of the older players I knew but having a whole room of them playing my songs was definitely daunting. I just jumped in and they were real nice to me, real encouraging about the material. I think once they heard the songs and realized that I could actually play, they were happy to be there.

JPG: Since you mentioned your solo debut, tell me the difference between There Goes the Neighborhood and Spirit of 70. What you intended to do on each one musically?

Walter: Well, Spirit of 70 came out a long time ago, ’96. That was still when I was in the Greyboy Allstars. It was basically a record showcasing my part of that band. Everybody from that band is on that record. I was pretty much just trying things out. It was like if you just take my section of the Greyboy Allstars and started to put focus on it. There’s so many great players and so many composers in the group.

The new record, I really came to it as my own project completely. I had to chart out everything. All the songs are mine except for a couple of covers, where the arrangements are mine. So, it really took a lot more of my energy, the newest one, which I really enjoyed.

That’s part of what I’m trying to do is push myself as a player. In between those I did the Money Shot record, which is with Stanton Moore and the guys from my band [20th Congress], which is still like a solo record in a lot of ways. I composed a lot of the songs and I’m sort of the bandleader also. I always try to let the players on any project, and the new record’s included, really have an influence on the material and give them a lot of leeway on how they perform the stuff. I don’t want to tell somebody what kind of solo to play or things like that. I really let it happen so you get the benefit of the great players. I try and go in very loose and let some magic happen on the spot. Anything I plan out is not going to be as good as what a group of talented people would do with it the music.

JPG: At the same time, if there was something, compositionally, if that’s the correct term, that you come up with would you go up to Red Holloway and tell him exact or tell him, Here’s what I’m looking for, play this.’

Walter: For composed sections I do say, Why don’t you try to hit this?’ But if someone looks like they’re not getting it or it’s not making sense to them musically, then I won’t push the issue. Either the song won’t work or I’ll let them do their thing. A lot of times, what someone will come up with will be better than what I had in mind.

It’s important for players to play stuff that’s comfortable for them, that feels natural, so that you’re not trying to play all this odd, crazy stuff that doesn’t flow. A lot of times, the stuff that I bring in, hopefully, will make sense, that’s a good melody for it and if someone’s got a better idea, I’m always open to that. I just think it’s a nice way of working. Also, if you go in without preconceptions, the record becomes something bigger than your imagination had before. It’s exciting. That’s why they’re fun to listen to still. Otherwise, I’d be laying down my master plan.

JPG: That sounds like something you could just do yourself, maybe sample exactly what you want.

Walter: Which I might want to do some day if I get a feeling to do a lot of composed stuff. But I also like improvisational stuff. I try to stress that.

JPG: I did an interview with Greg Kurstin of Action Figure Party (appeared in January 2002 edition), and his album and yours seem to mine the same 70s jazz funk territory. I know that both of you mentioned the Headhunters album as an influence.

Walter: Oh yeah, yeah, I know him. A good friend of mine works with him a lot. That [Headhunters] record is a classic for a keyboard player, definitely an influence on all of us.

I know of Greg. We share a lot of people that we play with. I’ve heard bits and pieces of the Action Figure Party record, but I haven’t sat down and listened to the whole thing. He’s a great player though. He plays with Bobby Hutcherson, who is a great vibe player. He does a lot of work with Elgin Park, who used to be the guitar player for Greyboy Allstars. They worked together on film scores and stuff. So, he’s sort of doing what I used to do. We are similar, I think.

JPG: It seems like that. The only difference is that you seem to be firmly a part of the jam band scene whereas his band is slowly coming around to it. Tell me about the early days, did you have a sense of the jam band scene or was did it accidentally found you?

Walter: It was accidental. In the Greyboy Allstars, when we were first playing, they were talking about Afro Jazz at the time. We played trendy nice clubs and a lot of times alongside djs. It was a dance crowd, but it wasn’t a jam band crowd at all. It was very fashion conscious. That scene was very fickle and trendy. It only lasted for a second here in the states. In Europe, it spun off into a sub-genre that some people are still into.

We met Erik Newson who became the manager of Greyboy Allstars. We met him at a show. He came to tape the show. We had never heard of that before. What? You got a DAT player and you want to record us live?’ He started talking to us, Hey, I’ve got these friends who would love your band but would never come to this place. I want to get you in front of this crowd.’ It was his idea to get us in front of different kind of people because he was coming out of the Dead and Phish kind of scene. So, we’d play this club across town instead. It ended up being a really cool thing, got us out of this passing trend thing into an audience that would eventually come to see us. Whereas before we were being fit into a night at the nightclub rather than people coming cause of us. Then it developed into a thing where we built our own crowd.

Then when I started my band, it took awhile to get people really to attract it’s own crowd. We attracted the Allstars crowd for a long time. Some of those people liked it, some of them didn’t. Then, over time people figured out if they were going to like it or not. People who didn’t like the All Stars, but liked us, they started to come, so it started to build its own thing. It’s great to play for that crowd. It’s great to play for a crowd that’ll allow you to really improvise and allow you to stretch out. That’s the good thing that bands like Phish and the Dead did for music, it turned a whole audience on to things that don’t have to fit into three minutes.

JPG: You mentioned Erik Newson. When did he start taping you guys and convince you…

Walter: He started working with us probably in ’96. There were a couple of years, we toured in Europe a lot before that. I could be wrong. Could have been a little bit earlier. We had made a record, we played in San Francisco a lot, we played in Europe a lot, but we hadn’t really done the States. He also encouraged us to really get out and do the States and do a lot of college towns. We were playing more urban environments before that.

JPG: Funny that you mentioned, the Grateful Dead and Phish as far as turning people on to the idea that a song doesn’t have to fit into a tight three-minute format. I find it interesting that on There Goes the Neighborhood only three of the 11 tracks go over five minutesand that’s barely over five minutes.

Walter: These are pretty short tunes for a jazz record, especially part of a jam-oriented record. That’s on purpose. I felt playing for the audiences that we do allows you some much freedom that occasionally everything has become stretched out. If you don’t play a 10-minute solo it’s seen as too short. It’s become a little bit ridiculous that everything has to be super-stretched out. I wanted to counter that with the idea of really making a tune-oriented record, a melody-oriented record, rather than this really exploratory thing.

Of course, the next one will probably be really ridiculous and stretched out. I like both things. But every once in awhile I get tired of the formula. I always want to experiment. I thought it would be nice to make a jazz-oriented record that really had a stress on tunes. There’s a lot of great records in the 60s, Horace Silver records or Jazz Messengers records, old records that were more about the song and less about the exploratory blowing. I wanted to do one of those, make a record that was like that. They used to play jazz on jukeboxes. Now it’s unheard of. This record is kind of my tribute to that kind of jazz, that soul jazz.

JPG: As far as playing live, are you still in that frame of mind? Keeping things crisp and concise and do 15 songs rather than 10 longer ones?

Walter: I Try to do a combination. Play one stretched-out thing and if it feels like it’s getting too nebulous and not direct enough, then I’ll try and do something short. We’ve been trying to introduce some stuff in the set that doesn’t have solos because in an instrumental band it’s really easy to get into a trap. I want to attack all the preconceptions of what it has to be. We’re experimenting with stuff that doesn’t have solos or improvisations, but not solo improvisations. Short song, long song, figure out what we’re doing. When we play live, it’s sort of unpredictable what’s going to happen. It depends on what our mood is. We have a big song list. It can go anywhere from being a lot of hard funk material to being more jazz-oriented. I’m a big fan of funk music. I like real dance-oriented simple music as well as jazz. I try and get some of that in there and try and promote that.

JPG: You’re touring with the 20th Congress now. . Was there ever a thought of trying to bring the band that was in the studio for There Goes the Neighborhood out on tour?

Walter: My touring band, the 20th Congress has been the same band for the last couple years. They’re my favorite guys to play with. I try and use them all the time. I am going to do a tour to promote There’s Goes the Neighborhood and get as many of those guys as I can. They’re schedules are hard. They’re working all the time. It’s going to be whenever we can figure out how to do it. Everybody has expressed some interest of doing a tour. It would be fun to play with those guys and do that. Also, maybe turn on some of these kids that have been coming to see the 20th Congress on to these great players.

JPG: As far as the songs themselves. Let’s go through a few, first off, “2% Body Fat,” comes from the old Greyboy days.

Walter: That’s the oldest tune of mine. I’ve tried to record it several times. I tried to record it with Greyboy Allstars. I tried to record it on “Money Shot.” It’s never quite been what I wanted it to be. Finally, we got a version that I wanted to put on a record.

I kept attempting to do it different ways. Part of what we did on There Goes the Neighborhood is much looser than any of the previous versions. I had always tried to really figure out the parts. That’s when I turned it into an opportunity to jam with those guys. Just told them, It’s in D, there you go.’ It’s much more alive and less trying to stick to the chart.

JPG: “My Babe,” the Willie Dixon song you cover, the way that it started reminded me of Eric Clapton’s “After Midnight.” Was that was accidental or intentional?

Walter: It was accidental. It’s just this tweaked version I know from Little Walter. It’s combined with a Booker T and the MG’s vibe and a New Orleans thing. It’s just a tune everybody had played. It’s an old standard. On this record when we did covers, I really wanted to pay tribute to earlier music.

JPG: As far as jamming with these players on the album, “Bakery Blues” the way it fades in it sounds as if the portion we hear is in the middle of a long jam session.

Walter: We didn’t plan anything on that. That’s just a first time thing. We were at the end of another take of a tune. It had supposedly faded out and Harvey started playing that blues and everyone fell in. It was early on in the session, one of the first or second things we did. Everyone was just loosening up, trying to get a vibe. It was a really cool moment.

It’s the beginning when we started getting good takes on the record. The engineer was smart enough to leave the tape rolling during that. So we just left it on. It’s nice to have a moment of just us. We didn’t even think we were being recorded. No one’s trying to perform. It’s a really nice relaxed moment. And also, I wanted to have a blues on there of some kind to show where we’re coming from.

JPG: Another reason why I brought up Action Figure Party earlier is that, like that album, your album starts off in a catchy, jazz funk groove and over the course of the last half, it moves away from that and goes into a more straight jazz mode. Was that a set up in a way for listeners?

Walter: The sequencing on that was on purpose. Although the tunes, the selection…I didn’t go into the session with that in mind. I had a bunch of songs. I had been more interested in stuff leaning more in the jazz direction. I don’t think any of it is really straight ahead mainstream jazz but definitely an influence, different kinds of beats, more of a playing field.

So, I had all these tunes and we went in and recorded em. When we were trying to decide what to put on the record, I thought, Do I want this to be perceived as a jazz record and surprise them with some funk on it or the other way around?’ I just felt like when you first put on a record it’s nice to have something that catches your ear and gets you excited so as it goes on it mellows. You’re going out for the evening and, eventually, you need to go to bed.

JPG: I like the way you put that. “Luck,” (the final track) does have like a fresh air feel to it, like an early morning breakfast at 6 a.m. and the sun’s come up and you’ve been out all night.

Walter: I’ve always liked that. There’s been a few records that end with ballads. I always thought that that was a nice thing.

JPG: In regards to your playing, you’ve been known more for your organ playing with 20th Congress but on “Bakery Blues” you went with piano. Same thing with “Swap Meet.”

Walter: I love the piano! It’s my first instrument I learned to play on. I’d like to play it more. We don’t make enough money for me to afford to take a piano out. Most of the clubs we play don’t have pianos. If they have them, I always try and play em.

I would love to do more piano. In fact, I’d like to make a record that’s all acoustic eventually, but that’s down the road. I think the next thing we’ll do is something closer to the 20th Congress’s live show, which is more aggressive and a little more outside experimental than There’s Goes the Neighborhood. After that I’d like to try and do maybe an acoustic record, but not really a jazz record. That’s always an influence. Keep a dance music element in there cause that’s something I love.

JPG: Because you seem to take a critical look at your own work, I feel I can bring this up. There was a review of the new album that ran in a previous issue of Jambands and I was curious of your reaction to this line, Robert Walter is a man with a goal, to bring back 1972. He certainly makes an impressive effort with this solo CD…’

Walter: (laughs) I haven’t heard that one yet.

JPG: He describes your cd as a “a jazz/funk outing not hindered by anything up-to-date.” Would you say, Yes, you’re right, what of it? or…

Walter: I don’t know. I don’t really think it’s a fair characterization that there’s nothing modern about it. But that said, I’m trying to find a way to modernize the style of music I love that began in the late 60s and early 70s without attaching it to other modern trends.

JPG: Like turntables and…?

Walter: The first thing you do is add a dj or add a rapper or put a drum n’ bass beat on it, which I don’t think really modernizes it. That’s just a trend. That’s just attaching something to it. It’s not that you can’t use those elements in a real musical way cause I’ve heard it done by other people. But I don’t think that’s really very interesting. To me it’s no more artistically valid to copy something that’s new or copy something that’s old.

It’s modern by the very fact that I have a set of influences that include hip-hop and include a lot of more modern rock music and electronic music, and those things become part of my playing. I wouldn’t improvise in the same way if I hadn’t heard that music. I’m not trying to do it in a contrived way or anything to modernize. I’m just trying to play the music I love and that definitely is a big influence from earlier music. Also, a lot of modern music leaves me a little bit cold because it’s heavily edited and heavily digitized and not based on playing. That’s not true across the board. I’m interested in the live band concept, which I find in a lot of those older records.

To answer your question, I don’t know, that’s perceptive in a way, but that is a big source of influence for me. But I wouldn’t want to be seen as strictly a retro thing either. All these guys have been playing this music for 30 years and they’re still playing the same way. Are they trapped in the 70s? You know what I mean. They’re just playing the way they play and they come from that era.

JPG: Overall, it seems as if he likes the album. But, as you were saying, maybe he was looking for, as you put it, the trendy elements to be in there. I’m like you. I would see it as okay that they’re in there if they are subtly in there.

Walter: There’s a real natural way to do that. There are certain people, Medeski, Martin and Wood combine elements form modern dance music. You can hear it in their music. There’s an influence of drum n’ bass and stuff like that without it being over the top. They’re not trying to cash in on it. It’s just a natural part of them. I think they do it in a really well-integrated way. But on the other hand, it’s a really cheap trick to just put a beat down that sounds like the newest shit and play jazz all over it. It’s not very interesting. Definitely this record, in particular, was a lot more heavily influenced by that older music. Whereas, something like Money Shot (with 20th Congress) is a little bit more experimental.

JPG: Which may be what he expected from you.

Walter: And probably the next one will be a little bit more experimental direction because we’re all younger guys. That’s a big part of it. It’s probably, at the end of the day, fair criticism, and that’s good because usually it’s everything’s all great.’ There’s nothing to make you think.

JPG: Back to 20th Congress…Do you think that would be a studio album or a compilation of several live performances?

Walter: We’ve been talking about doing something that’s half and half and editing bits of live performance with studio because there is some stuff we want to do in the studio that we can’t do live, as far as experimenting with the tones and using the studio for effects. But there’s something that happens live. It’s really hard to recreate in the studio. It’d be cool to have at least the best moments of the year on the record. I don’t know if that’ll end up what it is. Every time I think of an idea for a record, it goes into it’s own monster as it’s being made. So we’ll see…

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