Robert Walter performs all his own stunts. For 20 years, the San Diego native has been pulling drawbars and pushing the limits of the Hammond B3 organ. As a founding member of the Greyboy Allstars, he helped usher in the funk-jazz renaissance of the early ’90s and has continued to keep one hand comping chords in the instrument’s funky past, while the other explores ever-new melodic terrain. On June 25, his long-standing project, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, returns with a new album, Get Thy Bearings, via The Royal Potato Family.
It was a recent move from New Orleans to Los Angeles that jump-started Robert Walter’s 20th Congress who hadn’t recorded a studio album in ten years. The outlet for the keyboardist’s funkiest material since its inception in 1999, Get Thy Bearings pushes Walter’s organ, piano, Rhodes and synthesizer to the front of a group rounded out by guitarist/bassist Elgin Park, drummer Aaron Redfield, sax players Karl Denson and Cochemea Gastelum, and percussionist Chuck Prada—an allstar lineup in its own right. Recorded in just a few takes at Egonix Labs—the same studio where Walter and producer Michael Andrews have been busy scoring films such as Bridesmaids, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Walk Hard, Bad Teacher, Cyrus, She’s Out of Your League and 5 Year Engagement—the album is full of raw boogaloo energy and cinematic color.
“As I’m getting older, I’m owning the style a little more,” says Walter, who spent the early part of his career immersed in the jazz, funk and soul records of the ’60s and ’70s, trying to emulate his heroes, like Big John Patton. By the end of the ’90s, Walter briefly parted ways with the hard-touring Greyboy Allstars to hone his compositional skills with the 20th Congress. Subsequent albums like Money Shot and Giving Up the Ghost pushed Walter deeper into syncopated grooves and vintage arrangements, with help from bandmates Stanton Moore, Joe Russo, George Sluppick, Mike Fratantuno and Will Bernard, and led to collaborations with jazz-funk pioneers like Harvey Mason, Chuck Rainey, Johnny Vidacovich and George Porter Jr. In 2004, Walter even relocated to New Orleans in order to be closer to this music’s spiritual and cultural foundation. This period yielded two solo records, Super Heavy Organ and Cure All, as well as a handful of sides supporting Stanton Moore.
Since moving to the West Coast, Walter has been on a creative hot streak. Get Thy Bearings comes on the heels of the Greyboy Allstars return with Inland Emperor, their first album since 2007’s What Happened to Television? “I’ll have dry spells for a few months then go on a binge of writing, working every day,” he says. “Some looser ideas ended up on the Greyboy Allstars album because I expected collaboration from the other members of the band. The stuff that was more developed from the start went on mine.”
Working in film has brought conceptual depth to his writing, drawing on elements of narrative and character development without being so prescriptive as to spoil the groove. “They’re templates to improvise on,” Walter says of the nine tracks, ranging from the Sly Stone-style soul vamp of “Little Business” to the heavy gospel of “Crux.” “Dog Party” might as well be the theme song to a cartoon of the same name, while “Don’t Chin the Dog” shifts from delicate shuffle to horn-drenched boogaloo. Things get eerie on “Up From the Skies,” a Jimi Hendrix cover rendered nearly unrecognizable in washes of electric Miles. Similarly, the album’s title track is a shrewd reworking of the 1968 Donovan tune Walter first discovered on compilation of sample-friendly breakbeats, full of fuzz guitar and a mercurial organ solo.
“All these things just crept into the record. It’s my own voice, not so imitative anymore,” concludes Walter. “The band tracked the record, all at once in the same room. A lot of modern music is over-considered, but if you fix every little edge there’s no mystery. With Get Thy Bearings, we didn’t monkey around too much, just indulged in our musicalness.”