IN PERFORMANCE

Cedar Walton's low-key, less-is-more brand of pianism

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Pianist Cedar Walton always plays it straight – no flash, lots of substance.

So depending on one's listening needs, he's either a bit too restrained to generate sufficient excitement or so profound in his understatement that he satisfies on a deep level.

Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, he once again persuaded at least one listener that the economy of his work, as well as its harmonic erudition, offered ample reason to listen closely. Yes, Walton asks a lot of his audience, in that his music consistently proves so subtle in its voicings and complex in its chordal structures that only the most attentive listeners will be moved by his pianism.

Another way of putting it, though, is that Walton gives his followers a great deal of credit, assuming they'll understand the inner workings of this music and not require mere pianistic bravura to be engaged.

The heightened harmonic sophistication of Walton's playing became apparent early on in this evening, during a transformation of J.J. Johnson's "Lament." Here was the essence of Walton's pianism: extended chords stated crisply and without fanfare; multiple strands of melody woven into solos with seeming effortlessness; soft colors and muted dynamics sustained from start to finish.

In essence, listeners heard Walton building new chordal and melodic structures on Johnson's original, one formidable jazz composer transforming the work of another. With bassist David Williams and Chicago drummer George Fludas providing empathetic accompaniment, Walton was free to develop his ideas as far as he could take them, while preserving the plaintive quality of Johnson's composition.

For those who wanted an even more clear-cut lesson in how Walton builds an improvisation, his reworking of a Cole Porter classic – "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" – provided insight. Walton opened with a quietly rhapsodic solo that was unburdened by any hint of backbeat or tempo, his themes developing in unpredictable ways, his figurations as ornate as they were delicately expressed.

The control of this music-making was matched by its complexity. Yet regardless of how far afield Walton traveled from Porter's song, the original harmonic undercurrent echoed throughout. Quite a feat.

A bebop sensibility drove much of this evening's work, though hints of funk emerged, as well, in Walton's "Dear Ruth," penned as a tribute to his mother. The tune's stop-start rhythms and angular lines attested to Walton's inventiveness as jazz composer, while his brief quotation of "Ol' Man River" evoked the earlier era of the song's dedicatee.

Bassist Williams served as an important foil to Walton, adding a degree of energy and drive that benefited the proceedings. Drummer Fludas, more a swing machine than a hard-bop player, also kept the music surging forward.

For those who enjoy hearing a pianist set the keys afire, this clearly would not be the ideal setting. But anyone who values the less-is-more approach to piano improvisation will find much to value in Walton's work.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Cedar Walton Trio

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.

Admission: $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

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The Grammys 2011