, whose long and illustrious career ended with his passing in August 2013, was not only one of his era's most celebrated jazz pianists but a musician whose impressive talents as a composer were often beclouded by his remarkable success as a performer. One of those whose admiration for Walton the composer is as earnest as it is for Walton the pianist is Ben Markley
, himself a pianist and director of Jazz Studies at the University of Wyoming. To give voice to that esteem, Markley assembled a big band and entrusted the whole of its debut recording to Walton's singular compositions, several of which have become jazz standards.
Even though disparate in style and substance, Walton's themes have one thing in common: they swing heartily from a blues-based axis that serves as a durable foundation for his harmonic and rhythmic forays. Markley takes that to heart, and his arrangements echo Walton's infallible penchant for swinging in any and all contexts. Markley's ensemble, comprised of fellow UW faculty and a troupe of the Denver area's leading sidemen, is with him every step of the way, bringing Walton's compositions vividly to life in a format whose expansive boundaries lend them fresh gravity and allure.
Leaving nothing to chance, Markley has added a "wild card" to the deck in the person of guest trumpeter Terell Stafford
whose burnished ad-libs enliven "Cedar's Blues," "Hindsight," "Holy Land" and "Black," while Markley's radiant piano shines brightly on "Fiesta Espanol," "Hindsight," "I'll Let You Know," "Bolivia" and "Martha's Prize." Other soloists of note are trumpeters Greg Gisbert
and John Lake
, alto Wil Swindler, tenors Peter Sommer
and Serafin Sanchez
, trombonist Paul McKee
, guitarist Steve Kovalcheck
and bassist Ken Walker
. The rhythm section, anchored by drummer Chris Smith, is hard-working and intensely focused.
As for Walton's themes, they are invariably resourceful and engaging, from the loose-limbed "Cedar's Blues" to the formidable "Black," on which Stafford, Sommer and Gisbert torch the landscape. Stafford and Swindler are superb on "Cedar's Blues," as are Walker, Lake and Kovalcheck on the title song, and Markley, McKee and Gisbert on the rhythmically enchanting "Fiesta Espanol." That's only a foretaste of what's to come, as Markley and the ensemble transform Walton's music into a luxurious feast for the ears. One of the year's more captivating and persuasive big-band albums.