Pianist, vocalist and composer Chris Walters, along with a topflight band, adroitly blended lyrical sophistication and musical flair Friday night in an excellent performance at the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s Jazz Cave. The concert nicely mixed thematic elements. Sometimes it was a showcase for a skilled instrumental ensemble that was equally effective doing suites with intricate tempo shifts, straight-ahead swing numbers, and songs with a Latin or New Orleans feel. Other times it was a forum for Walters’ mix of romantic numbers and satiric discourses. The two sets were also filmed for an upcoming edition of WNPT-Ch. 8’s Tennessee Crossroads.
Walters’ compositions’ are alternately playful or poignant, sentimental or intense. As a vocalist, his style leans more to the Mose Allison/Bob Dorough school of conversational, bluesy presentation than the Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett brand of elegant delivery, though he can be flashy or bombastic. But Walters’ effectiveness comes via tone and emphatic elocution rather than showy mannerisms or extensive range. Though hardly preachy, his lyrics can sometimes sting in their frankness and honesty, other than when he shifts into a sentimental/romantic framework. While the atmosphere was cordial and congenial, things warmed up considerably on the bandstand as the night unfolded.
Much of that was due to the nature of Walters’ music. The numbers were layered and challenging, often changing a song’s mood and pace midway. The sets featured predominantly original material, though there were some notable exceptions. One was the first set’s second tune, George Russell’s “Billy The Kid.” Russell penned it in the late ’50s as a tribute work to Bill Evans, and Walters’ darting phrasing and shimmering lyricism saluted Evans’ pianistic command.
But Evans’ wasn’t the primary influence heard in Chris Walters’ playing. There were also bits of Allison’s bluesy mode interspersed in various pieces. Still, an even greater source was the flamboyance and edgy attitude of great New Orleans’ keyboardists. This resonated in such numbers as “He Ain’t Got You,” a dismissive rant addressed to a guy whose superior attitude screamed for a verbal dressing down. Another example was the boisterous “Le Chanteuse Josephine,” where he cleverly invoked the showmanship and competitive sensibility of a French jazz club through delightful melodic interplay and rich, engaging vocals.
Then there was the imaginative “A Droll Stroll With Jellyroll,” a wistful piece based on interviews Alan Lomax had with the famed “inventor” of jazz for the Library of Congress. During all these selections, Walters’ incorporated different aspects of Crescent City piano idioms, from barrelhouse and boogie to R&B, gospel and the layered accompaniment utilized by traditional jazz keyboardists.
Walters’ most recent disc “Yay, Everybody Yay!” and his 2007 CD “Cool Blue Swing” were the sources for much of the night’s material. He was backed by an exceptional group that included trombonist Barry Green, trumpeter Matt White, saxophonist Denis Solee (both tenor and baritone), bassist Roger Spencer and drummer Jim White. The opening set was nearly 70 minutes, and it displayed every aspect of Walters’ instrumental and vocal approach. Besides his works’ and the Russell cover, Walters’ and company also performed the title track from “Yay, Everybody Yay!’ that included Walters’ foray into kazoo playing and a robust baritone solo from Solee, and “Cool Blue Swing,” with outstanding contributions from Green, White and Solee.
Walters’ opened the second set with a dynamic rendition of a Bach piece, then sequed into another entertaining original, “I’m On The Cutting Edge.” Later came a rigorous rendition of Michel Camilo’s “Why Not,” complete with furious solos and solid rhythm section work from White and Spencer. The set also included a Gershwin cover, another romantic number and a spectacular finale that saw everyone get an extensive closing number, with White providing his finest rhythmic solo to give the night a strong ending. Since the concert began with a tune that contained no individual instrumental segments, it was highly appropriate that it ended with plenty of fireworks, even though Chris Walters’ music is just as much about intimacy and reflection as reaction and animation. Friday night’s Jazz Cave audience experienced it performed at the highest levels.