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Cedar Walton Horns Add Heft for a Strutting Piano Vamp


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The pianist Cedar Walton has been a mainstay of New York jazz circles since the 1950s, usually working in small-combo mode.

On Saturday night at the Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts, on the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, he began his concert that way: at the helm of a quartet with the saxophonist Vincent Herring, upholding an astute and sensible air.

But it was in the second half, when Mr. Walton doubled the size of the group, that the music really crackled. Starting with “Bolivia,” one of his best-known songs, he led an octet with cornet, trombone and three saxophones. He seemed instantly inspired by the pleasure of hearing his music in that format, with so much heft and hue. (The concert was presented by the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, part of a series run by Earl McIntyre, who directs the jazz program there. Mr. McIntyre was also the gig’s trombonist.)

Clarity has always been the core principle of Mr. Walton’s music. He’s an unpretentious but fastidious composer, and in many ways a methodical improviser. So the five-horn front line bestowed a useful challenge: his options as an arranger were exponentially increased, as was the range of usable timbres. Here his experience showed: he didn’t get hung up over possibilities, smartly using the horns as a natural extension of his pianism.

On “Bolivia” that resulted in some bright, pinging harmonies in the upper register, against a strutting vamp below. The voicings among the horns were complex but not too heavy, and Mr. Walton filled the gaps with yet more sophisticated chords.

He employed the same strategy to good effect on “Ojos de Rojo,” which rode a brisk Latin beat, and “I’ll Let You Know,” which assumed a walking ballad tempo and included a boppish cornet solo by Kevin Louis.

“Blue Monterey,” another original, featured angular intervals behind a solo by the tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery. And the arrangement for “Firm Roots” began with cornet and tenor in tandem before yielding to the full ensemble and to a galvanizing solo by the baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan.

Mr. Walton connected easily with the bassist John Webber and the drummer Willie Jones III, and on every tune he soloed with succinctness and poise. There was more leisurely space for his playing in the first half — he sparkled on a richly reharmonized “Over the Rainbow,” his longtime trump card — but the second half felt more purposeful and vital.

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