YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Stepping Up With Cedar

Pianist Cedar Walton made his name playing with much bigger names. Now a record company that made its name with young artists is pinning its hopes on this veteran. Why? Maybe it's his music.

June 02, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Profile Entertainment, the company that gave the world Run DMC, is at it again, blazing new trails through the music business.

So what is it up to this time? A new take on urban street sounds in the '90s? Not exactly. Next week, Profile releases the first albums on its new Astor Place label, which is dedicated to the exploration of a somewhat longer-lived kind of urban music: jazz.

And the first jazz artist Astor Place has signed is pianist-composer Cedar Walton. His initial album, "Composer," scheduled for release June 11, features a full program of Walton compositions played by an all-star sextet.

On the face of it, it seems like an odd coupling.

Why would a prosperous rap record label take its maiden voyage into jazz with a performer best known for his much admired skills as an accompanist rather than one of the charismatic new jazz lions? Why would a company that has built its success around a roster of young talent elect to kick off a new product line with an underappreciated veteran performer?

In part because Profile Entertainment President Steve Plotnicki is an inveterate jazz fan and a longtime admirer of Walton's work. But also because Plotnicki--whose marketing skills were crucial to the company's rap music success--sees the signing of Walton as "a good story."

"It's about a 62-year-old pianist," Plotnicki says, "who played with Art Blakey (Jazz Messengers)--the most famous hard bop group of all time--wrote some of the most famous jazz tunes, never really made it big, yet made a good living doing it for the last 30 some years.

"All of a sudden the new young guys are playing his tunes. . . . Then a new record company comes along, signs the guy and gets a bunch of those young guys to play on the record. That's a good story."

Or, at least, the beginning of a good story. And, from Walton's point of view, it's one that he's been waiting to hear for a very long time.

"I was amazed," Walton says in a conversation at his West L.A. apartment, "when Steve came to me and said, 'Cedar, nobody's really highlighted the composer side of your musical productivity,' and asked me to write totally new material for a recording. Maybe another way of putting it is to say I was in total ecstasy. 'This must be a dream,' I thought."

Less a dream and more of a practical business decision for Plotnicki. Walton fits into a three-part plan that is the foundation for Astor Place development.

"First of all," Plotnicki says, "I think there is a commercial marketplace for great jazz compositions to be performed in a fresh way. And that's where Cedar fits into our plans. Second, I think there's a market for new repertoire to be performed with jazz sensibilities. So we're also releasing a [saxophonist] David Murray album in which he performs tunes by the Grateful Dead. And third, Astor Place--like Profile and GRP and Windham Hill--will be logo-driven."

In that scenario, according to Plotnicki, listeners will anticipate the next Astor Place album because they have a strong sense of what the "style and quality" of the music will be. And, eventually, the product will move beyond jazz into an "eclectic mix of music."

"The thing I like about Steve," says Walton, "is that he is a guy who loves the music, but who still pays attention to the numbers." Paying attention to the "numbers" has not always been a priority in jazz, and Walton is right in suggesting that a more coherent balance between commerce and art--of the sort that recently has resulted in successful concept albums from Cassandra Wilson and Joe Henderson--is going to play a crucial role in the music's future.


The Walton album, a substantial contemporary jazz document, also appears to have considerable sales potential.

Using his experience with the Blakey band and the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet (another former employer) as a reference point, Walton has crafted a set of jazz tunes played by a sextet that manage to be accessible to a wide audience without losing their sense of adventurousness.

"I think my strength as a writer came from working with [Blakey's] Messengers and the Jazztet," Walton says. "I didn't always do a lot of writing for them, but I learned a lot through trial and error, and that's really where I got this sextet format, with three horns."

Walton's "strength" also traces to a warm, amiable personality that allows him to work with musicians in a way that gets past the notes and into the heart of the music.

"When we were recording," says Walton, his voice still tinged with a trace of his native Texas accent, "I told the guys what kind of mood I wanted. On one tune, I told them, 'OK, now we need to be on about 113th and 1st Avenue in Harlem.'

"Then on the next piece, Christian [McBride] said, 'Are we still in that part of town,' and I said, 'No, man, we went to Brazil. Now you gotta have a passport.' I think the younger cats enjoyed that approach, which I try to do all the time--use a figure of speech to designate the feeling you're trying to get in a piece."

Los Angeles Times Articles