â'It's a Good Thing'

Rich Walker's jazz guitar is never off the mark View all events this week »

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Music

by Kevin Crowe

"It didn't pay much, but we didn't careâ” Rich Walker says of his early days in central Florida, when he could be found most nights playing cool, downtempo jazz numbers at any restaurant or club that would let him plug in his guitar. â“Some of the cats I played with were just the best.â”

He'd play anywhere, living by one simple truth: â“There's always a restaurant that has music.â” Often very soft, intimate, even introspective, Walker conjures George Benson and Wes Montgomery when he plays, with subliminal overtones as he runs through tight, technical progressions. At times he's sparse, allowing each note to breathe as he works up the fretboard, but the end result is always intense and passionate, without the slightest bit of chill coming between the notes.

Walker's style is alive and vibrant, a joyous offering of crisp, delightfully textured ideas. Whether he's playing a hard bop tune, or cutting into cooler arrangements, Walker is never afraid to slough off past conventions, adding his own hard edge to traditional, barroom jazz. â“The thing that I like about [Walker] is that he's very social,â” says Carlos Fernandez, a local jazzman who first played with Walker back in the '70s. â“He keeps it social. That's who he isâ.

â“I didn't realize how good this cat was until I went out and played with other groups,â” Fernandez adds. â“I was green, man. I had been playing with a lot of calypso groups. But that's ancient history.â”

Fernandez's latest collaboration with Walker, an album entitled Impressions , also features some of Knoxville's most celebrated jazz instrumentalists. Mark Boling, Keith Brown, Rusty Holloway and Béla Fleck saxophonist Jeff Coffin will play alongside Walker at the KMA this Friday. â“I'd much rather be playing with a group,â” Walker says. â“You're always improvising. It's been called the highest art form because not only are you creating something, you're creating something on the spur of the moment.â”

And his work with Fernandez has led Walker into new musical territories, where Cuban rhythms meet bop, where exotica and modern jazz blend seamlessly into one another with the guitar spiked on top of it all, churning tropical ersatz into the bluest jazz imaginable.

â“If you can get that idea across, the more creative you can be,â” Walker continues. â“You get to the point where you can say something, take that chance. It's a good thing.â”

There will be two sets at Friday's show. The first will feature music from Impressions , with Richard Drexler on the piano. Drexler, in 2005, released an album called Señor Juan Brahms , an eclectic and sometimes humorous tribute to the works of Johannes Brahms.

Then, along with Vance Thompson, a trumpeter and founding member of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Walker will play his blues set, as he riffs off of a few of Ray Charles' arrangements. As always, he's building on top of the music that's come before him. â“You can't erase the canvas,â” Walker says. â“I'm not an entertainer. I just sort of play. I'm wallpaper. If nobody's listening, I still have a good time.â”

That's what he's always done, ever since he first picked up a guitar in the early '60s. â“I'm not really sure how it happened,â” Walker says. â“I had gone up to Ohio to visit my cousin, and he had a guitar. I had no idea I would be interested in it.â” A few days later, Walker was at a pawnshop, buying a crummy little box guitar. Ever since, his relationship with his music has always been full of hardships, as well as triumphs. And so it goes.

"I thought it was a stroke,â” Walker remembers. In 2001, immediately after a gig, he lost feeling in his thumb. There were more episodes when he couldn't even hold a guitar, and his speech would slur. It was finally diagnosed correctly as bacterial meningitis, which was spreading down his spinal fluid.

â“We finished the last song on the set, and he looked at me like he was having a stroke,â” Fernandez remembers. â“That's when I started looking at it, like, you never know what's going to happen.â”

Since then, Fernandez and Walker have cut several albums on the Knoxville-based Altru Records, including East Coast Standards Time , Bar Hop and Impressions . Not too bad for a couple of guys who first met at a place called the Chicken Coop in Nowhere, Fla., a bar that was adorned with barbed wire and stuffed chickens on pedestals.

â“You realize through the years how much time you could've put into it,â” Walker goes on. â“You realize you don't play enough.â”

WHO: East Coast Standards Time and The Rich Walker Jazz and Blues Revue WHEN: Thursday, July 5, 7 p.m. WHERE: Knoxville Museum of Art

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