Lush life

Pianist Cedar Walton has played with and known -- and been -- the best

In 1994, Walton appeared on the very first Leaning House Records release, Marchel's Mode, which marked the debut of local tenor sax hero Marchel Ivery as bandleader. Before going into the studio, Leaning House Records co-founder and producer Mark Elliott talked about finding a "nationally known" artist whose reputation would bolster the project; they wanted someone from Dallas or, at least, Texas. Fortunately, Walton was going to be in town anyway, visiting his mother, and so Elliott scheduled the recording sessions--February 7-9, 1994--to coincide with his visit.

Walton and Ivery weren't friends--not like he and Clay or Newman, at least, kids who had grown up playing together in high school. At best, they were distant acquaintances: Walton says he played with Ivery once or twice, but can't quite remember where or when. Still, Elliott wanted Walton on the disc--for his Dallas connections, and because Walton was, to this young kid, something of a mythical figure, the link between so many key figures in the history of modern jazz.

During the sessions, Elliott repeatedly asked Walton to lay down "Giant Steps" for Ivery's record. At first, Walton resisted--perhaps it was like retracing his steps over sacred ground--but he eventually consented, even writing out the original changes from memory, changes Coltrane had given him 35 years earlier. The version of "Giant Steps" that appears on Marchel's Mode may well be a shadow of the Coltrane original, but it's a vibrant shadow--if not a sunrise, then a glorious sunset.

"Cedar was the first person that gave me a crash course in the business side of running a label," says Elliott, who was then just a kid in his mid-20s who had never produced an album, much less one featuring a bona fide icon. "At the time, we didn't have much money at all, and I thought we were going to have to record him on an upright piano. He offered to take less money to play on a better piano--I was so embarrassed. I mean, Cedar's got this really big, booming voice, and he was already a mythical figure to me, so it was really intimidating talking to him the first few times from his home in Los Angeles, but he was very nice. When he got here, he was a total gentleman. I mean, the man played on 'Giant Steps.'"

Now, if only Cedar Walton will believe it.

Cedar Walton performs May 20 at Jazz Under the Stars at the Dallas Museum of Art. He will be joined by Marchel Ivery, Fred Hamilton, and Ed Soph.

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