To put things succinctly, it has been an interesting summer for Robert Walter’s 20th Congress. The ex-Greyboy All-Star piano player and company released their eagerly anticipated debut album, Money Shot, which relives the Hammond B-3 organ funk days but with a personalized flare. They then hit the road to support the album but had all their gear stolen during their stop in Alberquque. In response to this unfortunate event, the jam band community held a benefit concert at Wetland’s Preserve in New York City which featured Dave Hoffman and Justin Wallace Ulu, Fuzz and Hope Clayburn of Deep Banana Blackout, Eric Krasno of Soulive, Joe Russo of Fat Mama and Stanton Moore of Galactic. Not only was the concert an amazing sonic event but it was also a fine display of mutual musical admiration and support. Although an evening not covered by the media, it should go down in history as a fantastic musical philanphropy. Since this summer, Robert Walter's 20th Congress (Walter on Hammond, Chuck Prada on drums, Cochemea Gastelum on saxophone and flute, George Sluppick on drums, and Chris Stillwell on bass) has recovered from their losses and they are moving on with their busy touring schedule. The Vermont Review caught up with Walter between gigs from his home in San Diego, a city he has called home his entire life.
VR: When did you first start playing the piano?
RW: I started when I was really young. I guess when I was eight or nine. I studied classical piano for a couple of years and then I lost interest in it and I quit. Than I played drums in a rock band for awhile. In 1988, when I was nineteen, I started to play piano again because I wanted to write songs. It is easier than trying to write from the drum set.
VR: Was playing the piano something that your parents instilled upon you during the early days?
RW: Yes, although I think I wanted to play when I was young. When I kind of discovered rock music, I decided that I did not want to play the piano. I rediscovered it later.
VR: You play the Hammond B-3 now?
RW: Yes, that is my main instrument now.
VR: Is it difficult to go from the one instrument to another?
RW: It feels different to play. If you can play the piano, you can sit down and play something on the organ, but there are a lot of skills that go with it. Getting used to the way it sounds, working the draw bars, working the volume pedal and you have to pay more attention to the release of your notes. It is definitely a different thing. Also, the tradition of it is different. There have been so many different great organ players over the years that you have to study the history of it in order to give it justice.
VR: When you decided to start playing the Hammond, did you take lessons?
RW: No. I just listened to records which is really how I learned to play the piano too. I started getting interested in listening to a lot of organ players and than I figured “I might as well try it.” It took a while. In my old band, the Greyboy All-Stars, I played organ once in awhile but I didn’t really do it very seriously. I mainly played electric piano. When I started to decide to do my own band, I was listening to all these organ players so I decided to center the band around that.
VR: How did you get the 20th Congress together?
RW: Basically they were a bunch people that I have known from San Diego who I had played with various situations. I picked out the people who were good but who hadn’t been playing on a more national level. After the Greyboy All-Stars broke up, I wanted to pursue my own thing. I wanted to play with people I like and also respected musicians.
VR: So, why did the Greyboys break-up?
RW: Our drummer, Zak Najor, quit the band because he wanted to go to Bible school. He was tired of being on the road and all that. I think after all that time, I think everybody in the band was getting burnt.
VR: It seems like you guys still play together here and there.
RW: Once in awhile we see each other. I am now playing with the bass player. I like all the guys and I think they are great musicians. You can’t do the same thing forever or else you just stop learning. For the last couple of years in that band, we did not practice very much and were starting to go in different directions musically from each other. It is hard to work in that environment.
VR: I see that Elgin Park sits in on your new album?
RW: He lives right down the street from me. We hang out a lot. He has been doing TV and film scores. He has a show called “Freaks and Geeks”- it was on NBC for awhile. He is working on a couple of movies right now and he did a record under his own name that I played on also. It is more like a pop band. He doesn’t play guitar solos- it is all him just singing. It is a cool record though.
VR: Do you look at Money Shot as a continuation of Spirit of the 70s?
RW: They are, definitely. I am playing more organ. That is the main thing that has changed. The players are also different. Money Shot is a little less reverent to the old records. Spirit of the 70s was directly influence by 1960s and 1970s soul jazz. We were really into that stuff at the time. That is all that I listened to. With the new record, there is less of an intent to try to imitate that stuff. It is more me playing stuff that I want to hear. Also, Stanton Moore is on the record which changes the character by bringing in that New Orleans influence. I also think that the record sounds a lot more crisp.
VR: Did you deliberately choose Stanton Moore to get that polyrhythmic feel?
RW: Yes. I have known him for a long time and we had jammed together here and there. I thought that it would be really interesting combination because my writing doesn’t really lean in that direction. I am not from there but I have always liked that kind of music. I think the slamming together of the two styles was really interesting.
VR: Is there a difference between Boogaloo and Soul Jazz?
RW: We used Boogaloo as a catch all phrase for 1960s stuff but Boogaloo is actually is a style of music influence d by Latin music. It started with people like Willie Bobo. There were Latin bands that were playing popular R&B, rock & roll tunes and the combination of the music created a dance style and a little scene. And than all those guys, like Big John Patton and Grant Green, picked up on it and did their own version of it which is really more what we are ripping off. Boogaloo was actually a particular style of music at one time. No we use it to describe all that stuff that is a little bit before the discovery of funk but after R&B.
VR: You had quite a wave of support after your gear was stolen.
RW: Yes. That was really nice. I had no idea that a lot of the people even knew who we were. I went to New York for the benefit show and I got to meet a lot of musicians who I have known about here and there but I never got to meet. It really helped out because we were pretty demoralized at the time. It was a big blow. We have gotten everything thing else back on line now. We haven’t replaced everything we lost but we are definitely up and running.
VR: Did you have to rent equipment in the interim?
RW: We borrowed stuff and we were using stuff that we had that was old and not really professional quality. A lot of our gear was rare vintage gear. Some of the things are irreplaceable. And the things that are replaceable are hard to find. You have to wait around and find stuff on ebay. The fun part is that we get to go to music stores shopping again. The search is kind of exciting. We have found a lot of stuff.
VR: When Viperhouse had their equipment stolen before the Ottawa Jazz Fest, they released a live album of their performance up there (on borrowed equipment). Is there any chance of documenting the Wetland’s benefit?
RW: There was some talk of releasing it as a record. Since it has so many different players, I don’t know what the legal and ethical ramifications of that are. We would have to contact everybody and make sure that it is ok to release it. And really, we have gotten back on our feet financially. Basically, we don’t want to think about it anymore. We want to move beyond it.
VR: I am going to name some names of some fellow musicians. I would love to hear what you have to say about them. Lonnie Smith?
RW: He is my favorite living organ player. I got to see him at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland two years ago – he was playing with Lou Donaldson. Sometimes you see the older players and they still play great but they have lost some of their aggressiveness and stamina. He is going strong. He is also fun to watch. I think he is real showman when he plays.
VR: Larry Young?
RW: Larry young is great. I have a couple of records by him that I am really into. I have not heard much of his later Tony Williams’ Lifetime stuff. I know him more from his 1960s records. There is one called Heaven on Earth on Blue Note with George Benson that I am a big fan of. He played on Grant Green’s His Majesty King Funk which is sort of a Boogaloo record. Technically, he is one of the heaviest guys. He also very interested in more modal and modern approaches to the organ whereas most players come directly out of blues. He plays a little bit different.
VR: Melvin Sparks?
RW: Melvin Sparks is a good guy. I learned a lot from him. We got to play with him a little bit. His greatest thing, to me, is his rhythm. Not necessarily his rhythm playing but he uses time when he plays solos too. It is instantly easy to play time with him which is something you don’t realize listening to records but when you are on stage with him, everything feels natural and easy. He is such a strong force rhythmically.
RW: I met him here and there with Galactic but he came out and played with us in Seattle the last time we were there. He changed our whole outlook. He plays really spontaneous and you can never predict what he will do. He sat in with us and played really harmonically outside and he forced everyone’s head open as far as how you don’t have to be chained to the tune so much. He is great.
VR: Les McCann?
RW: Les McCann is a big influence on me for piano. Mainly for that gospel influence.
VR: Your album makes a lot of references to “You Got Another Thing Coming!”
RW: That is the hidden track on the record.
VR: Are you a big fan of Judas Priest?
RW: I was when I was a kid. I haven’t listened to them recently. We were joking around in the studio. Dan Prothero, the producer, loves hard rock. He would always have people play covers in the studio. Garage a Trois did “War Pigs” and Papa Mali did a version of “When the Levee Breaks.” We tried to be super ridiculous and do Judas Priest. It came out kind of cool and funny. It wasn’t originally going to be on the record but everyone who listened to it, loved it. It was cool to hear Stanton playing something so square. He played it straight down the center, hard rock style. There was no syncopation in it whatsoever.
VR: How much of the 20th Congress is composition and how much is improvisation?
RW: Usually it is like a jazz group. We have ahead arrangement and we have a melody at the front of the song and we play it back at the end of the song. Everything in between is improvised on the form of the head. There are usually some chord changes that are set but we are free to play within those as much as we want. We have all sorts of techniques such as substituting chords or changing the lengths of the chords that we do by feel.
VR: How much does your own mood affect your playing?
RW: It is really variable. The goal is to play as much of what your genuine emotions are at the time and not what you preset. That is part of why we try to improvise so much. If you are playing from genuine emotion while your feeling it, you are playing it rather than trying to remember it. Singer/Songwriters, who write a song about their girlfriend or whatever, have to get up there and get themselves in that headspace that they were at when they wrote the song. I think half the time they are bullshitting. We are trying not to do that. We are trying to play exactly what we feel. The only downside is if somebody is in a bad mood and they may not play from the most positive of emotions. We try to keep ourselves happy when we get up there.
VR: So the 20th Congress thrives on a happy vibes rather than contention?
RW: Definitely. Especially as I am getting older, I like to spread something good to people. It seems that when you hang out in the room, would you rather hang out with someone who is complaining all the time or happy? You much rather be around somebody who is in a good mood.
Check out more at http://www.20thcongress.com