Robert Walter, one of America’s heaviest jazz-funk keyboardists, spent the early portion of his career immersed in the jazz, funk and soul records of the ’60s and ’70s trying to emulate his heroes, such as Big John Patton. But now he’s certainly found his own voice and style.
“As I’m getting older, I’m owning the style a little more,” Walter said.
Robert Walter’s 20th Congress will perform tonight at The Barkley Ballroom in Frisco.
Walter was one of the founding members of the Greyboy Allstars, whom he played the Hammond B3 organ and keyboard with for many years and recently toured with in support of its new album. He formed Robert Walter’s 20th Congress with guitarist-bassist Elgin Park, drummer Aaron Redfield, sax players Karl Denson and Cochemea Gastelum and percussionist Chuck Prada.
The band’s latest album, “Get Thy Bearings,” a reworking of the 1968 Donovan tune, was released last month and has received high praise. Tracks such as “Don’t Chin the Dog” and “Hunk” showcase the group’s jazz-funk melodies while “Crux” has a heavy gospel feel.
“All these things just crept into the record,” Walter said. “It’s my own voice, not so imitative anymore.”
Walter answered a few questions about his music, touring and more:
This spring, you toured with Greyboy Allstars in support of “Inland Emperor,” the band’s first album in six years. Tell me how a Greyboy show is different from when you’re on stage for Robert Walter’s 20th Congress? Which do you prefer?
Robert Walter: Greyboy Allstars was the first band I really toured extensively with. I learned to improvise on stage in that context, and it always feels very comfortable and easy with that group. The material is written mostly as a group, and we play a lot of older songs by our influences. With the 20th Congress, most of the tunes are mine, and we stretch things out more. I’m really looking for unique events to happen and less focussed on recreating what is on the records. I enjoy both. I like to play in different settings to keep myself feeling inspired.
You’re a founding member of Greyboy Allstars. Tell me a little bit about why you decided to start Robert Walter’s 20th Congress? What does this band allow you to do that Greyboy Allstars doesn’t (or didn’t)?
RW: 20th Congress started as a way for me to experiment with composing more. Greyboy Allstars was taking some time off, and I was getting into music that didn’t fit so squarely in the soul jazz-boogaloo thing. We were messing around with effects and improvising in a more free-form way than what was happening in the Greyboy Allstars.
And I’m so curious — what does the band name mean?
RW: The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was held in 1956. It is known for Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” which denounced the personality cult and dictatorship of Stalin. I thought it had a nice ring to it and played into my idea of reinvention at the time the band was formed. I like names with some mystery to them.
You say the nine tracks on your latest album, “Get Thy Bearings,” tell a story. What is the gist of the story you’re telling?
RW: It’s not a literal story, more of a mood. It had a lot to do with my moving back to California and reconnecting with the music that originally got me excited about playing. Also, in a larger sense, getting older and coming into my own personally. It was my version of getting back to my roots, I guess.
Whereas you say you used to imitate your musical influences, now you’ve found your own voice. What do you think accounts for that? Is it just a matter of time?
RW: I really believe in learning from older music when you are coming up. After a while, though, it’s important to find something deeper to play about. When I listen to music, I want to get to know the artist, not just their record collection. Now, I don’t really think about genre, I just play and my influences have become a natural part of me.