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Michael Kanan's Cy Walter - 20th Century Piano Genius
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One of the greatest pianists who performed and recorded in the United States from the 1930's through the 1960's is largely unknown today. His name is Cy Walter. During the height of his popularity, he performed regularly on national radio broadcasts such as "Piano Playhouse". He was a favorite pianist of many of the Great American Songbook composers such as Richard Rodgers, Alec Wilder, and Jerome Kern (he was the first musician to play Kern's most enduring song, "All The Things You Are"). He accompanied singers like Frank Sinatra, Mabel Mercer, and Lee Wiley. In his time, he was a true musical celebrity.
People may not know Cy Walter today because the style in which he played was not easily categorized. His repertoire came mostly from the Broadway standards of Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, etc. While he had an extensive background in classical music, he was steeped in the language of jazz. His favorite pianists included Art Tatum and Bill Evans but he could not exactly be called a jazz player himself. He did not draw from the blues, and he did not play bebop solos. He was sometimes called a "cocktail pianist", but his performances were far superior to the unimaginative kind of playing that this title suggests. He referred to himself as a "show tune specialist", but even that does not begin to describe the depth of his playing.
A typical Cy Walter performance was fairly short in length. He often played through a song a few times, staying fairly close to the melody, and usually changed keys once or twice. His piano arrangements sometimes included a short improvisational section, but mostly the performance was devoted to the melody of the song. One even gets the feeling that he played the lyrics as well as the melody. With his luminous piano sound and precise rhythmic placement, the melodies truly "sang out" from the piano. And these melodies were set in the most elaborate, luxurious accompaniments. Walter was truly a contrapuntal pianist. He was able to play several distinct melodic parts simultaneously. His approach to arranging a song for the piano was orchestral. The main theme might be played in one register of the piano, while simultaneously, one or even two other accompanying motifs might be developed across the rest of the keyboard. Each of these themes is made distinct through masterful use of dynamics. A propulsive sense of rhythm drives the entire performance. The song feels alive, and the melodies not only sing, but dance.
Of particular interest to pianists is the harmony that Mr. Walter created for a song. He often stayed close to the composer's original harmony and then embellished it, rather than substituting a new set of chord changes as pianists often do today. The embellishments were always beautiful and surprising. His harmonic palette was rich and varied, but he never obscured the composers' intent. Richard Rodgers (the composer of many of the greatest standards) hated "stylists" who changed the original harmonies, but he loved the way Mr. Walter played with "style and still manages to leave the harmonies intact". Alec Wilder, another eminent composer, had this to say: "In his respect for the writer, [Cy Walter] plays the melody and uses such harmonies as he feels best support that melody. The bass lines and harmony of the published copies of composers like Rodgers, Kern, Arlen, and Gershwin are so often obviously right that, for the most part, he uses them as a basic pattern. But he creates so much beyond the call of duty that anyone who has heard his own songs played by Cy immediately has a greater respect for his own work. He has made many an average song sound superlative"..
When playing standards, pianists often try to express their own personality by changing or rearranging the song. Mr. Walter achieved an intensely personal sound by embracing the composer's original work. He delved deeply into each song's melody, harmony, and sentiment, and turned each performance into a profoundly emotional statement. Paying tribute to the composer also allowed him to perform for a wide range of listeners. Casual music fans could enjoy familiar melodies beautifully played, while more serious listeners (as Cy Walter's fans often are), could hear a sublime artist crafting a multi-faceted masterpiece.
Although he was a prolific recording artist, there is only one Cy Walter CD available today. It is called "The Park Avenue Tatum", the title referring to the fact that Mr. Walter played in some very elegant, upscale nightclubs, and that he possessed a piano technique that might be compared to the great Art Tatum. This wonderful CD is a collection of some of his earliest recordings dating back to the 30's. It can be ordered online from www.shellwood.co.uk. Another way to find out more about him is through the web site www.cywalter.com, which was started by his son Mark Walter. Through Mark's diligent efforts, one can find here a detailed biography, family photographs and memorabilia, and many recorded examples of Cy Walter's music that can be downloaded. The web site is a great resource for anyone interested in learning about this unique and compelling artist.