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All About Jazz - Los Angeles

Walter Norris @ Catalina's  5.3.04

By Anne Farnsworth



    On a mellow Monday evening, pianist Walter Norris brought his unique and highly personal style of piano playing to Catalina's.  The itinerant Arkansas native left Little Rock to tour Texas before entering the service. After a brief stint in Vegas, he hit Los Angeles for an extended stay, gigging with the cream of the West Coast crop - the short list being Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Teddy Edwards, Zoot Sims, and Buddy DeFranco.  He wandered east to spend a few years in New York, eventually settling in his adopted city of Berlin.

     The Catalina session was an intimate affair with Norris playing the first set solo before bringing up bassist Putter Smith for the rest of the evening.  Norris doesn't need anything more for he plays the piano like the orchestral instrument it is, with a technical prowess that would be the envy of any classical pianist.

     "Spider Web" in the solo set was a clever amalgam of piano styles that ranged from the bombast of 19th century romanticism to Earl Fatha Hines stride.  "Afterthought" mingled jazz improv with 20th century classical sonorities.  "Tiger Rag" was another homage to the early stride pianists, played with both historic and technical accuracy. How many contemporary jazz pianists have taken the time to master this demanding style?  Norris has a formidable left hand, whether he is using it to play stride or countermelodies to his right hand.

     After Smith joined the second set, Norris launched into "All The Things You Are" with a reharmonized intro that could make Jerome Kern sit up in his grave because he hadn't thought of it first.   "Body And Soul" was a mini sonata with its slow-fast-slow arrangement embroidered with a contrapuntal duet between the bass and piano.

     Norris introduced "Stompin' At The Savoy" by saying he played Bill Holman's arrangement that he learned from a recording.  Only Norris could pull off a big band chart with only a piano and make you hear it all. 

Putter Smith played with assurance and grace, no small feat considering Norris' sometimes wandering pulse and sudden key changes.  Norris remarked to the audience that he had known Smith since the bassist was thirteen and his brother brought him along to a jam session.

     The closest Norris came to straight-ahead playing was the last selection, a blues that swung hard and stayed true to the changes.  Walter Norris is a true creative, brimming with originality and technical mastery - a wonder to watch and listen to. 

All rights reserved - Anne Farnsworth

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