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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1354

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Robert Walter's 20th Congress: Giving Up the Ghost
by George Graham

(Magnatude 2302 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/11/2004)

When you think about it, music has long been at the cutting edge of technology, going back hundreds of years, with especially among keyboard instruments. There were the great and elaborate pipe organs of the 18th century, and the development of the considerable complexity of the piano with its ability to be expressive, back in Beethoven's day. Moving into the 20th century, electronics has become a big part of music, from the early Theramin electronic instruments of the 1920s to electric guitars in the 1930s and 1940s, and the rise of electronic organs in the 1940s, and the electric piano in the 1950s. Contemporary synthesizers make use heavy of computer-type integrated circuitry. Supposedly, each generation of technology offers an improvement over the previous. But where there is art, the answers to what is better, technologically, becomes a very subjective question. So despite the proliferation of digital synthesizers capable of a remarkable range of sounds, there has been a decided trend toward retro technology. The Hammond B3 organ, originally developed in the 1930s, with glowing tubes, spinning tone wheels and rotating speakers, has enjoyed a great resurgence in the past decade. And the electric pianos made by the Rhodes and Wurlitzer companies originally intended to do a electromechnical emulation of the sound of a piano, but be a bit more portable, have also recently found renewed interest, thanks in part to some hip-hop artists sampling bits of old funk records from the 1960s and Seventies and mixing them into their sound.

Not surprisingly, a number of younger artists are drawing on the retro keyboard sound, from rock organ combos like Medeski, Martin and Wood, to groups like the Diplomats of Solid Sound, who are influenced by the Memphis soul organ-combo sound of Booker T. and the MGs.

This week we have a new recording of instrumental music that starts with an outwardly retro sound, but musically and sonically explores some interesting directions. The group is Robert Walter's 20th Congress, and their new CD is called Giving Up the Ghost.

This is actually the fifth recording by Walter and his San Diego-based group, but the about the first to make it this far East. Robert Walter grew up in music, playing in his stepfather's blues band at a young age. He played in a succession of groups ranging in influences from the Parliament/Funkadelic funk to what his publicity bio called "electronic punk." By the mid 1990s, he was a founding member the Greyboy Allstars, a pioneering group in the so-called acid jazz style. The group's leader, DJ Greyboy, was heavily into 1960s and Seventies funk and soul, and Walter, whose record collection included a good helping of 1960s-era work by organist Booker T. and the MGs and jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, heard in the Greyboy Allstars a kind of integration the old and the new, with a sound grounded in the instrumental colors of 30 or 40 years ago.

Since launching his own rather variable group in 1996, the keyboard man has collaborated with some outstanding musicians including jazz saxophonists Gary Bartz and Red Holloway, drummer Harvey Mason, and guitarist Phil Upchurch. On Giving Up the Ghost, Walter is joined by saxophonist Cochemea Gastelum, who had appeared on previous 20th Congress recordings, along drummers George Sluppick and Joe Russo alternating, bassists Chris Stillwell and Mike Fratantuno, and guitarist Will Bernard, who was part of an excellent San Francisco instrumental ensemble called TJ Kirk.

Walter's 20th Congress has had a reputation as being very much a retro group, and keeping pure to the sound of that era. But on this recording, Walter does something which is also characteristic of the period, experimenting in the studio, looking for new sounds and ideas. But Walter continues to rely on his vintage keyboards, with the electric pianos being given as much prominence as the organ, and some old analogue synthesizer sounds finding their way into the sonic agglomeration as well. The result integrates some contemporary elements like techno-styled electronic percussion and loops, and bits of distorted sounds. Walter also evokes the psychedelic era through the use of an electronically processed sax, run through electric guitar effects, a sound that has likely not been heard to any extent since the 1970s and artists like the late Eddie Harris. The overall result is a recording that is both fun and musically satisfying, full of familiar ingredients but avoiding cliches. The mood is generally danceable, but can get a bit atmospheric as well. The grooves run from funk to straight-out rock to hints of reggae, with a short episode on jazz swing one piece.

Things get under way with one of the CD's most interesting tracks, Glassy Winged Sharp Shooter. It sums up the sound that seemlessly integrates hip-hop sonic elements with the 1970s instrumental voicing. <<>>

Aquafresh hints at New Orleans funk, again with a distinctive combination of retro sounds with original musical ideas. <<>>

A bit more abstruse in sound is a track called Convex + Concave, with its vaguely ominous quality that again combines a keyboard sound straight out of early 1970s Weather Report with 21st Century style drum loops. <<>>

Robert Walter and Company can also get rather jazzy when they want to, as evidenced by Bygones Be, which features Gastelum's flute and Walter's decidedly jazzy electric piano. <<>>

Taking a harder edge in sound and a rock beat is Easy Virtue with old-fashioned distortion devices applied to the sax making it rather indistinguishable from the guitar. <<>>

Another of the album's highlights is Clear All Wires, with a retro synthesizer undercurrent and danceable rocky beat. The solos feature a succession of cleverly distorted instrumental sounds. <<>>

There are a couple of more laid-back pieces on the CD. One is called Underbrush, and it shows that the beat does not have to be driving to make for engaging music. The combination of sounds, both instrumentally and electronically is another example of Walter's creativity in doing something new that sounds timeless.

Perhaps the most surprising, but engaging track is Sacred Secret, Giving Up the Ghost's longest piece that is a thoroughly infectious Gospel style romp. Walter gets to shine on the organ, which he does not play all that much in the foreground on this CD. <<>>

The jam band scene has helped to pave the way for instrumental groups like Robert Walter's 20th Congress to reach younger audiences. But Walter and his variable ensemble is less a straight jam band than one that explores the intersection of danceable music with sonic creativity, blending vintage sounds and styles with 21st Century elements, even those that have seemingly become rather trite, in clever ways that for the most part make music that is both interesting and danceable. There are no great hummable melodies or pieces likely to become jazz standards here, but the combination of the great rhythmic grooves and the clever sonic juxtapositions makes Giving Up the Ghost an album that's hard to categorize but likely to appeal to a fans of at least two generations,

Our grade for sound quality is about a "B plus." There is a lot of sonic processing done to the instrumentation, which is more or less integral to the sound, but still there is sometimes a bit too much. There is also very little dynamic range, though that is common for the genre, so we won't demerit as much as if this were more acoustic instrumentation.

The electric instruments Robert Walter plays may not be very up-to-date, but what he creates with them can sound quite fresh.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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