The jazz world recently marked the passing of the great pianist, composer and bandleader Cedar Walton. I don’t use the word “great” lightly here, or as a token of deference to an important figure. I would be inclined to call him underappreciated, except that every serious jazz musician I know speaks of him with the utmost reverence. Not unlike a great and successful but not-flashy athlete, Cedar himself was so unassuming and his music so natural-sounding that it can be easy to forget how much of the modern vocabulary he is responsible for.
This marks the first of 3 related Top 10 lists – I realized that my affection for the work Cedar did (in various contexts) with the great drummer Billy Higgins is so fundamental to my own conception of jazz that it warrants its own list. So here we have 10 of my favorite Cedar tracks WITHOUT Billy, and we will soon follow with a similar list of Billy’s recordings before culminating with 10 of my favorites with the two of them together. Here we go:
1 ) “That Old Feeling” (from Three Blind Mice, Vol. 1 by Art Blakey)
Would you call this a trio performance or a sextet performance? No matter, it swings like crazy and shows an early example of the inventiveness of Cedar’s soloing and arranging.
2 ) “Ojos de Rojo” (from Something for Lester by Ray Brown)
In between sessions by two of my biggest influences, Phineas Newborn, Jr. and James Williams, Elvin Jones and Ray Brown did one additional session together. The whole record is wonderful, and this spirited version of Cedar’s Latin burner is a highlight.
3 ) “Mosaic” (from Mosaic by Art Blakey)
I played this tune as a student at the Artists Collective before I’d ever heard a recording of it, and then Jimmy Greene gave me a CD of Eastern Rebellion playing the tune, which I loved. Then he loaned me the Blakey version, with solos by Mr. Blakey, as well as Cedar, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and Curtis Fuller. My goodness.
4 ) “Holy Land” (from The Harem by Milt Jackson)
Great Cedar tune. Bags, James Moody (on flute), Jimmy Heath (on soprano). Ridiculous swing from Bob Cranshaw and Kenny Washington (who would go on to follow Billy Higgins in Cedar’s own band). Say no more.
5 ) “Naima” (from Naima by Cedar Walton)
Considering he played on the initially-unreleased first recording of the song, one could say that Cedar comes honestly by his relationship with this classic Coltrane ballad. I’ve always dug his Latin-ized arrangement of it, and my favorite of his numerous recordings (today, anyway) is this one, recorded live at Boomers in NY with Sam Jones and Louis Hayes.
6 ) “Plexus” (from Hub Cap by Freddie Hubbard)
Hubbard, Julian Priester and Jimmy Heath all take fiery solos on this original version of a great Cedar Tune that I heard for the first time on its subsequent recording by Art Blakey.
7 ) “Mode for Joe” (from Mode for Joe by Joe Henderson)
Cedar doesn’t even solo on this one until the vamp on which the tune fades out, but he contributes plenty in writing and arranging the tune and locking in with drummer Joe Chambers in comping for Henderson and longtime associates Bobby Hutcherson, Curtis Fuller and Ron Carter.
8 ) “Spring Cannon” (from Blue Spring by Kenny Dorham)
Very early Cedar, here accompanying Dorham and Cannonball Adderley on a burner.
9 ) “God Bless the Child” (from Bolivia by Freddie Hubbard)
The first Cedar I ever heard was on this album, and I was particularly struck at the time by his playing on this duet ballad performance.
10 ) “Iron Clad” (from Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette)
There are several great recordings of this Cedar tune, and I’m particularly fond of this one on which he shows his adaptability to a busier, more polyrhythmic environment.