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JD Walter: Live in Portugal

Victor L. Schermer By

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Walter's innovative approach goes far beyond that of any other singer around today, yet adheres closely to the jazz idiom
J.D. Walter
Live In Portugal
JWAL Records

J.D. Walter may be the most avant-garde vocalist in jazz today. He uses a broad range of musical and linguistic approaches to create haunting atmospheres, rapid scat runs, and emotionally engaging interpretations of both standards and his own compositions. On this double CD set, recorded live at the Lagoa Jazz Festival in Portugal, he takes scat to a new expressive level. The word scat is in fact barely adequate to describe what Walter does. He creates meaningful shifts of emotions through extended improvisations, artfully bending elements of sound, pitch, and meaning. In addition, he uses electronic media to generate breathtaking harmonies and sonics.

Frequently compared to Betty Carter's experimental, late-career efforts, Walter's innovative approach goes far beyond that of any singer around today, yet adheres closely to the jazz idiom. As saxophonist Dave Liebman has noted, Walter uses his voice as an instrument—and it could be added that he takes this to a new level of perfection. Moreover, his well-honed voice effortlessly covers several octaves, rendering his funky musical approach beyond classification. Accompanied by an energetic rhythm section, he masterfully deconstructs and reconstructs the songs, which he approaches more for inspiration than with melodic exactitude.

Live In Portugal begins with an unusual rendition of "It Never Entered My Mind," in which Walter bends the melody almost beyond recognition, but retains its sense of lost love. Following a long note calling for the lost lover (and an invocation reminiscent of Canteloube's song cycle "Songs of the Auvergne"), it becomes clear how Walter's scat has its own vocabulary, which he uses here to convey the feeling of longing. The extended chant is accompanied by a synthesizer background, followed by a reflective interlude with sidemen pianist Jim Ridl, drummer Donald Edwards, and bassist Mark Kelley, a piano solo, and extended scat in which the mood alternates between the joy of memory and the agony of loss. Walter wrings every bit of emotion out of this ballad, which has previously been performed in a straight-ahead format by the likes of trumpeter Chet Baker, and sung soulfully by Frank Sinatra and Morgana King, among many others.

By contrast, "Never Let Me Go" is done in standard ballad style, and given a very sensitive interpretation (which stands comparison with Irene Kral's divine version).

"So Wonderful" is presented over two tracks; the first, a brief introduction in which Walter vocalizes a bass fiddle, the second, in the mode of an early Leonard Bernstein show tune. Walter shows himself to be at home with the vast scope of the American songbook, as is also demonstrated in the next number, the James Taylor Quartet classic, "Shower the People," which features an ingenious unison duet with bassist Kelley (or is it a synthesizer?). Then, Walter electronically harmonizes with himself in a way which is startling for a live performance, since such harmonies are more typically done in the studio with overdubbing after the fact.

On the second disc, we first hear Walter's original composition, "Keisha's Coy," with Kelley on bass after Walter states the theme. (Kelley uses amplified bass guitar throughout, which gives the entire album a funky fusion feeling.) Walter restates the melody, after which a bass walk reflects Keisha's coyness. In the tradition that critic Nat Hentoff called "telling a story," this song and its interpretation by the group tells us a lot about the personality of a lady named Keisha. Words are unnecessary here.

"Inword" is as far as Walter will go with a protest song and on account of its reticence is the least effective of the set. "I Was Telling Her About You" is a beautiful, melancholy song, with lyrics by Don George and music by Mark (Moose) Charlap, the father of pianist Bill Charlap. Following an introspective piano intro by Ridl, Walter renders heart-rending vocals, often venturing into the higher vocal registers. Walter usually sings in the baritone/tenor range, but here his voice extends smoothly as high as the Four Seasons' Frankie Valli sans the falsetto! Walter sang in a church boy's choir as a child and at times his voice echoes that clear innocence.

The CD ends with an ambitious, upbeat version of the classic "Just the Way You Look Tonight." Ridl offers soloing reminiscent of the title track from his album, Five Minutes to Madness and Joy (Synergy, 1999), using well-choreographed stylings and phrases to create a disturbance of mood. Walter's inventive "Latino"-style and rapid-fire scat on this piece, together with his use of synthesizer harmonies, gives the tune a genuine world music feel.

The sidemen for the concert are excellent, especially noteworthy for the drum work of Donald Edwards. And Ridl is one of the finest pianists in the business today, with a creative fecundity that few can rival. He proves himself consistently brilliant here, as he always does. The recording quality, too, is outstanding for a live performance.

If you haven't heard J.D. Walter before, this CD promises to be a treat. And if you're familiar with his singing, Live in Portugal will give you a broader sense of the various flavors of which this outstanding vocalist is capable.

Tracks: CDI: It Never Entered My Mind; Never Let Me Go; So Wonderful (Intro); So Wonderful; Shower the People. CD2: Keisha's Coy; Inword; I Was Telling Her About You; Just the Way You Look Tonight.

Personnel: J.D. Walter: vocals; Jim Ridl: piano; Mark Kelley: bass; Donald Edwards: drums.

Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: JWAL Records | Style: Vocal

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