By Ashley Zimmerman
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Like many young people, Robert Walter took classical piano lessons as a child, practicing the requisite number of hours to satisfy parental whims. But unlike those who became distracted and dropped their musical education, Walter continued, attending San Diego's School of Creative and Performing Arts. "That was actually pretty intense," he remembers. "But I didn't really study piano, just music theory in general. Most of the piano stuff I've learned from just listening to records and copying people and going to see people play, to pick up on what they were doing and stuff like that."
After finishing the formal part of his musical learning, Walter came into public prominence as a member of the Greyboy Allstars, a California collective created by San Diego producer Andreas Stevens, a.k.a. DJ Greyboy. A hip-hop DJ with jazz sensibilities, Greyboy's 1994 album Freestylin' contained a number of samples and breaks straight from classic jazz cuts. When the time came to have a record-release party, Greyboy didn't want to simply play the album straight through. Instead, he recruited a band to actually play the samples live. And thus, the Greyboy Allstars were formed.
"He was more like a mentor to us than anything else," Walter says of Greyboy. "More like a spiritual adviser or something. It wasn't really like he was directing the band in any way. It was more like he turned us on to different music and started talking to us about concepts of playing rather than specifically doing anything with the music."
The Allstars went on to record two studio albums (one with trombonist Fred Wesley of James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic fame) and a live effort before growing apart and disbanding in 1997. "We got attached to this 'acid jazz' thing. It became kind of a curse," Walter laments. "We didn't make that up, and we never identified with that scene at all. To me, acid jazz was a British thing, and it was about DJs. But we were just trying to play what we wanted. We were influenced more by old records than we were by '90s British dance music."
On the plus side, inclusion in the Greyboy Allstars sparked the solo careers of saxophonist Karl Denson, now center of the Tiny Universe, and Walter, leader of 20th Congress. Both play down-and-dirty dance music -- call it fusion, funk, soul, or boogaloo -- just don't try to place the music firmly into any one genre. The two men recently reunited with the rest of the Greyboy Allstars for a few scattered shows on the West Coast, and "there's been some talk of doing some more Greyboy Allstars recording, so we'll see if that comes together or not," Walter says. "It just depends on so many people."
After separating from the Allstars in 1997, Walter recorded and released Spirit of '70, a solo album that heavily featured the contributions of saxophonist Gary Martz. Soon after, he formed the 20th Congress with Cochemea Gastelum on saxophone, Chris Stillwell on bass, drummer George Sluppick, and percussionist Chuck Padra.
The name, according to Walter, is "a reference to the Soviet 20th Congress. It was a secret session of the Soviet Congress where Khrushchev admitted that Stalin had done all of these horrible things. It was a big turning point in the Communist movement," he explained after qualifying that he was no expert on Cold War-era Russian history.
But the name is also apropos in a more roundabout way because the naming of the band marked a personal turning point for Walter. "The joke at the time was that I was leaving the Greyboy Allstars, which was sort of a tyrannical part of my life," Walter laughs, heavily. "I wanted to avoid any name that implied too much about the music. I didn't want us to be called Soul Something or Funk Something; I didn't want to be stuck in a box that way."
In 2000, the 20th Congress released the live record Money Shot,which distorts the lines among jazz, funk, and soul in the same way some of Walter's influences had about 30 years before. Though the album flew under the radar of many listeners, the old-school players who initially influenced Walter and his bandmates were impressed.
"I've gotten a great response from all the players of the older generation," Walter explains. "In a way, we're influenced by some music that most of these people got involved in. Herbie Hancock and Mike Clark and Fred Wesley all played jazz -- jazz at some point in their lives before they came into prominence in the late-'60s and early-'70s with fusion and soul-jazz and all that stuff. Some people see us as a resurrection of that thing, a continuation of the tradition."
This past August, the 20th Congress released Giving Up the Ghost, which continues the older players' legacy and begins building a new tradition. For Ghost, Walter added guitarist Will Bernard and a second rhythm section featuring Mike Fratantuno on bass and Joe Russo on drums. Their addition to the group adds one more tasty ingredient in Walter's improvisational stew.
"The trick to me and the interesting thing to me is always to walk the line where it's still different every night and it's still challenging to your ear but there's another level you can enjoy it on," Walter clarifies. "So if you want to sit there and think about what's going on, it's still rewarding and interesting, but if you just want to dance, it's OK too."