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5 Ways to Play Like Cedar Walton

(Image credit: Getty/Barbara Zanon)

Pianist, composer and NEA Jazz Master Cedar Walton passed away on August 19, 2013.

He was widely regarded as one of the most inventive and dynamic pianists in Jazz. Born in Dallas, Texas, Walton was a member of Art Blakey’s famed Jazz Messengers. He also worked with storied saxophonists John Coltrane and Hank Mobley and led the acclaimed group Eastern Rebellion. Walton had a broad base of musical influences that we will examine in the examples below. These short exercises are just a small snapshot of things I hear in Cedar’s playing. After you get these ideas into your ears and under your fingers, you should transpose them into all 12 keys so that they become part of your musical vocabulary.

1. Cedar’s Comping

(Image credit: Future)

Here, we examine some of Cedar’s comping techniques. These examples were influenced by Cedar’s work on his album with Hank Mobley, Breakthrough. Cedar would often switch comping styles throughout the same song. Ex. 1a illustrates altered chord shapes. These voicings are based on the half-step/whole-step diminished scale—think of chord roots moving in minor thirds starting on the tonic.

Ex. 1b shows how Cedar often employed McCoy Tyner’s classic fourths voicings. They are all constructed by stacking fourths and thirdsin the Dorian mode.

In Ex. 1c,Cedar employs a comping style that stacks triads above left-hand, Bill Evans-style chord voicings. Here we move the right-hand C triad up in half-steps over a ii-V-I progression in C to make interesting chord alterations.

2. Cedar’s Solos

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Ex. 2 shows how Cedar’s solo work often switches gears mid-solo. Here, the right hand plays a bebop line with “Bill Evans” voicings underneath. Then it morphs into a fourth-based line with McCoy Tyner voicings in the left hand. We’re using a minor pentatonic scale over the Eb major tonality.

3. Arranging Vamps

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One of the most famous Cedar Walton songs is “Bolivia” from the album Eastern Rebellion, Vo1ume 1. This track features a great vamp section that serves as the influence for Ex. 3. Here, I’ve written large chords in the right hand that could be assigned to a horn section using the fourth and third structures from Ex. 1b. I’ve also added an interesting rhythmic idea in the last four bars, as Cedar would often set up small, unusual patterns like this.

4. Comping over Bar Lines

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Ex. 4 demonstrates the concept of comping “over the bar line.” We have some interesting ideas for voicing these chords with fourths and seconds, plus a bass line so you can see and hear where the time is. This example is influenced by Cedar’s comping on his song “Bolivia.” When constructing your own voicings, try not to reuse notes and to incorporating interesting spacing between the notes.

5. Melodic Solos

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Cedar often builds simple melodic lines that provide a wellspring of material from which to launch soloing ideas. Over the ii-V-I progression of Ex. 5, we see a short melodic fragment that sounds deceptively simple, but this kind of compact melodic idea offers great potential for solo development and improvisation.