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Pianist Walter Norris Is Tuned to Best of 2 Worlds : Jazz: The respected keyboardist, who will perform in Seal Beach, includes classically inspired sounds in his music.


You can tell a lot about Walter Norris, the man, from his piano playing. The respected keyboardist, who works with bassist Putter Smith on Sunday and Tuesday at Spaghettini in Seal Beach, takes an expansive approach at his instrument that's intelligent, warm and serious while it blends jazz and classical traditions into a seamless whole.

As he performs, detailed, technically difficult passages give way to bits of clear and simple beauty. Delicate phrases are buttressed with substantial chordal support. Blue moments give way to resounding joy. And a sense of humor is revealed when he drops a bit of an old standard into a lengthy improvisation.

In conversation, Norris is equally expansive. He recalls his first musical experiences observing the church organist in his native Little Rock, Ark., with the same ease as he does giving a recent concert in Mexico City.

He's willing to speculate on why his old friend saxophonist Ornette Coleman (Norris pronounces the name " Ar -nette") never again used a piano in his band after including Norris on his groundbreaking 1958 recording "Something Else!." He gives honest answers to questions that might put more self-centered artists off. And he's not above having a good laugh.

Take for example, what he says about playing the sometimes less-than-perfect instruments he finds on obscure and the not-so-obscure engagements when visiting this country (Norris has lived in Berlin, Germany, since 1977).

"One can be very depressed and irritated and violently angry (playing an untuned piano), but I don't see it that way. . . . If it's a lovely (instrument) with a beautiful sound that responds well, I can express myself in a better way. If it's a bad, beat-up instrument with weak hammers and dirty strings and a half-dead sound, then I have to use much more pressure to get what I want from it.

"Often there'll be an out-of-tune note that twangs horribly, a note that would cause other pianists to screw up their faces in irritation when they play. But it's much better to play that twangy note as if it were a beautiful note. The audience may hear that it is sour, but they will be taken by the effect, visually and audibly. It will come out beautifully."

Almost everything Norris has played--including work with Coleman, saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Stan Getz, trombonist Kai Winding and a long stint with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra as well as a handful of fine albums under his own name--has come out beautifully.

Norris was born in Little Rock in 1931. When it came time to choose which music capital in which to try to establish his playing career, he chose Los Angeles over New York.

"There were two reasons. The first was because Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker were working here. The second is because I thought it had a healthier climate at that time (1954) than New York.

"This gets very personal. In New York in the late '40s and early '50s you nearly had to be addicted (to heroin) to get into playing the jazz clubs. This is a hard, cold fact. But I wasn't (a drug user). . . . I had too much respect for the talent I had and wasn't going to abuse it."

He found favor among the Los Angeles jazz community and eventually became the house pianist at Haig and Tiffany's clubs, where he worked with the likes of saxophonists Zoot Sims, Teddy Edwards, Sonny Criss and trumpeter Jack Sheldon. He spent time touring with the Shorty Rogers-Bill Holman Quintet. And it was here that he made one of his best-remembered associations; a friendship with eclectic saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

"I first heard him at a jam session at the Haig just after I got into town, and later I was working a session gig and he came in and played. He was serious. We had a nice rapport. So he called me in 1958 for his recording session that became 'Something Else!.' "

Norris has often joked about the fact that Coleman never again used a keyboardist in his bands.

"Maybe I ruined it for all the other piano players, I don't know," he said, laughing. "I don't think he ever thought in terms of a well-tempered tuning, not that he was out of tune. But the fact is that the piano is tuned to exact notes. You can't make notes sound flat like you can on a violin or saxophone. And that's the way Ar -nette hears that music. My playing on the piano forced him, in a certain way, into harmonies that he would normally not play."

Like Coleman, Norris eventually left Los Angeles for New York in the '60s, where he worked the club scene and became the musical director for the local Playboy Club.

When pianist Roland Hanna left the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1974, Norris took over, frequently touring Europe with the much-touted ensemble and playing its legendary Monday night slot at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. He also served a short time in the late Charles Mingus' band.

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