If you’re unfamiliar with the funky keyboard work of Robert Walter, it’s high time you took a listen. Since his debut solo album Spirit of '70 in 1996, Walter has established his own mojo outside of the Greyboy Allstars, the still-vital band that birthed his career two decades ago. Whether playing with Greyboy, laying down New Orleans B-3 funk with Stanton Moore, or leading his own band the 20th Congress, Walter’s style has always gotten listeners on the dance floor. His latest album Get Thy Bearings marks a superb next chapter in a career built on vintage keyboards and funky grooves.
How did you find your way into funk?
I grew up listening to hip-hop. When I was a kid it was what was new and exciting. Then I started becoming interested in what breaks they were sampling and a lot of them were from these jazz-funk records. I started buying those records and getting into the music but I came at it from a different perspective.
Who are your main influences?
The big ones for me are Herbie Hancock and Jimmy Smith—Herbie for the electric piano and Jimmy for the organ. Then all the New Orleans guys, especially James Booker and Doctor John. I also love this Bobby Hutcherson record called San Francisco that Joe Sample plays on. That's where I got into Joe, though I listened to a lot of the pre-fusion Jazz Crusaders as well.
How did you choose the Rhodes as one of your main sounds?
There’s a little nostalgia factor. It reminds me of when I was a kid listening to FM radio and Steely Dan with my parents. A Rhodes automatically has a ’70s connotation, but that’s partly what I like about it. Especially when I first started playing it; everyone was either playing digital keyboards or, on the jazz side, everyone was really into acoustic instruments. That was in the days of strict jazz snobbery. There are certain kinds of harmonic possibilities from the tone of the Rhodes that sound different than acoustic piano. It's got a lot of possibilities that are outside of all the obvious references to ’70s music.
How do you choose between Rhodes and Wurly when recording?
They all have their own character. Different songs require different things. To me, the Rhodes is the big, buttery, soft one, then the Wurlitzer has a little more attack and gets more barky. I also love the Hohner Pianet, which is more “narrow.” The Pianet is thinner; it's great if you have a lot of guitars on a track and you want to cut through. I always associate Pianet with the Zombies, who I love. Also Sly Stone. It’s all over his stuff and I love the sound.
Do you ever use digital keyboards or soft synths?
There was a period where I was a real purist about it and really kind of fetishistic about old gear. It’s cool; you get one and it's interesting, you wonder who owned it and what story it has to tell. I’m not opposed to anything that sounds cool. I do have a laptop and I use software. There are a lot of things I like about working in a digital environment, as far as being able to throw a lot of stuff up and then go back and edit it. I like to write that way. I use Logic to write and demo music in that fashion. As far as performing, I’ve always felt like I can’t get the same amount of expressiveness out of digital. And partly, digital stuff is just not chaotic enough for me. I like the “X-factor” that the keyboard might not do what you want it to do. I like all those little quirks. Digital synthesis sounds great but it doesn’t hold much mystery for me when I’m doing it. The process is important to me
How do your roots guide your musical direction?
The thing that we [Greyboy] liked the most were the Blue Note and Prestige labels, and then the organ records from about 1967 through ’72. Initially, we weren’t that into later jazz funk and fusion. The chords were too complex. When I was first learning how to play Herbie and Jimmy, that music was so intimidating because it’s so good and complicated. They were great technicians, but there was something about players like John Patton or Leon Spencer, guys who were less virtuosic. Also, Ramsey Lewis on piano. He was a big one because I heard those records and thought, “I could figure out how to do that.” Now I’m less scared of virtuoso players. I can get more out of them because now I can hear what they’re doing. When I was younger it just kind of blew my mind.
Do you feel there’s still a place in world for “vintage” music?
I think there is. I don’t know about the record label business. It used to be your record was a big deal and everything was based on that. Now it’s touring. Luckily my forté has always been performing. I feel like it’s still compelling to see that kind of music live and watch everybody improvising and interacting onstage. There’s a lot of risk involved so it’s exciting and different every night. The whole jazz world has that risk in improvising, but the music has become so academic. I’m prone to love it and I have a big collection of jazz records, but I go to shows and sometimes I’m bored to tears. There’s no attempt to make it fun for the audience. Our music works on a couple of levels: You can just zone out and get into the funky beat, but it also has some content if you care to listen deeper.
It seems like there was so much important music in the 20th century. Do you feel there’s less innovation now?
People are still doing interesting things. I think for what you’d call straight-up jazz, it has a certain suspiciousness of commercialism about its culture. Like, “This is high art, we’re not being commercial!” It’s good to be excessive and not worry about the marketplace, but then you risk losing your connection with the audience. It eventually becomes so insular and self-referential that it’s not really cool. To connect the music with the body and not just the brain is very important. It’s more consistent with what jazz really is, in my opinion. It’s the soundtrack to your life. You have to make it your own language, not just relevant to the history.
So is the value in music’s populism or its personal connection? Crowd-pleasing versus fan-pleasing?
It’s all valuable. I listen to some super “out” stuff as an influence. But Saturday night when you have your friends over, are you going to put it on for your party? Probably not. That's important to me, too: remembering that this music has a social function. It’s not hung in a gallery. I’m interested in music bringing people together.
Who do you connect with in today’s keyboard scene?
Doctor Lonnie Smith never disappoints. I really look up to him. His music always grooves and it’s different every time. He’s one of the last examples where you can see that approach to playing live, and it does what I remember those early records doing to me. For people closer to my age, I love Marco Benevento. He’s got such a joy when he plays and he’s a goofball, but it’s very infectious. Marco has a kind of pop thing naturally. I would guess he likes a lot of classic songwriting and rock music. He has a way of improvising where there’s a melodic balance of surprise and familiarity, where the surprise has impact. Brian Haas I love too, especially for his physicality. It’s very visceral. That's what I always liked about Cecil Taylor. He’s not melodic in the traditional sense but his playing has such a forward motion physically. I also love Neal Evans from Soulive, especially for his bass lines. And I love watching Ivan Neville play.
Do you find it harder to create a voice or style on acoustic piano versus electric pianos or organs?
Keyboards are always a workaround. On a guitar, you can bend notes and get overtones. A sax is pretty “vocal” naturally. The piano is set up in a very rigid way. All the American styles are trying to subvert that, trying to smear the notes and get screams and barks and things out of it. The organ more naturally does some of these things that I love. With piano, you’re very naked. But I like the challenge of trying to strangle some emotion out of an instrument like that.