At the time of its recording, Robert Walter’s long out-of-print 1996 debut album ‘Spirit of ’70’ was the second edition in a planned series of solo albums by individual members of The Greyboy Allstars—the band Walter co-founded, and 27 years later continues to play keys with, alongside saxophonist Karl Denson, guitarist Elgin Park, bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Zak Najor. The concept for the solo recordings was to emulate the rotating personnel of the Blue Note and Prestige labels where a core cast of musicians would take turns as a leader, while drawing on the others as sidemen. The idea was further expanded upon by inviting a guest from the previous generation that had been influential to The Greyboy Allstars’ sound to record with them. For ‘Spirit Of ’70,’ legendary saxophonist Gary Bartz joined the line-up.
“We loved the ‘Harlem Bush Music’ albums by Gary Bartz,” says Walter. “Somehow the idea became to have Gary on the next record, which would be mine to lead. He was a hero for us because of his lucid improvisations, deep connection to blues and heavy spiritual vibe. My contributions to The Greyboy Allstars at the time had been tending more strange and meditative, so it seemed like a great fit.”
The sessions took place over a few days in producer DJ Greyboy’s living room turned studio. Recording in a non-traditional space helped to create a relaxed atmosphere and forced Walter and company to play closely together without much isolation. You can hear the front door open at the beginning of “Impervious” by someone unaware that a take had begun. Elgin Park’s guitar on the album was recorded through a Caliphone portable record player instead of an amplifier. Aside from instruments and recording gear, the house was filled with mid-century furniture and thousands of records. The cover photos were taken in the same space as the recordings.
“We had been touring heavily at the time so the band had an easy chemistry, but this was my first album as a leader, so I was both nervous and star struck by the presence of Gary Bartz,” remembers Walter. “Before long the tension eased and the recording was fun and loose. I remember Gary playing one great solo after another while we just tried to get a mistake free take behind him. I learned from the sustained flow of invention in Gary’s playing. It made me want to become a better and more true improvisor. He helped to elevate the music beyond just a throwback funk tribute. This was art being created in real time and in the present. That early inspiring experience did a lot for my confidence as a composer and arranger.”
Declared “can’t miss funk” by JazzTimes at the time of its original release, the majority of the material recorded for ‘Spirit of ’70’ had been part of The Greyboy Allstars live sets with band members Elgin Park, Chris Stillwell and Zak Najor all receiving writing credits, while two of Robert Walter’s compositions “Impervious” and “Palilalia” were written specifically for the album. Additionally, two tasty covers were served up: “Jan Jan,” a song written by organist Mose Davis of underground Detroit funk stalwarts The Fabulous Counts and “Little Miss Lover,” the Jimi Hendrix gem, which nods to the soul jazz tradition of reimagining popular songs from the rock music canon.
Alternating between an array of vintage keyboards, including Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hammond B3 organ, Clavinet and Mini Moog, Walter leads the band through a set of soul jazz, boogaloo and rare groove. As the album title implies, 1970’s funk, in all of it varying colors and forms, was the inspiration and, accordingly, burns off the grooves. It’s audibly apparent that the music is being born again in the capable hands of a new generation. Walter and company’s youthful exuberance propels the record with wide-eyed innocence as elder statesman Gary Bartz clearly gives his blessing for these 20-something funk purveyors to assume the mantle.
“I remember making this album as a highlight of the early days of The Greyboy Allstars,” concludes Walter. “I think it captures the band right as it is beginning to establish its own identity. We are taking the lessons learned from emulating the records we love and starting to create something unique. I’m still very proud of this one.”
Robert Walter ‘Spirit Of ’70’ will be released May 7 on limited edition 180-gram purple smoke vinyl and digital formats via Royal Potato Family.
Royal Potato Family