Is Walter Norris the Art Tatum of our time? That’s what it said on the publicity material passed out to the audience when Norris played at Spaghettini on Tuesday, but it seems to typecast Norris in a role he doesn’t really play.
His first two sets here demonstrated that, like Tatum, he is a pianist of tremendous range and scope, willing to push the music from inside, to expand it into something larger than its usual self. And, like Tatum, he has the technical goods to make that happen.
But direct comparisons stop there. Norris is a tremendously individual player whose sound stands apart from that of anybody else you can name. There’s plenty of personality in his work, manifest in constantly changing moods and rhythms that surface in a single tune. And while Tatum’s lush improvisations would come in a persistent gush, Norris’ unwind in more considered fashion, in a way that literally allows you to hear the man thinking.
His rendition of “Willow Weep for Me” in the second set made for a perfect snapshot of his style. Working at an easy, mid-tempo pace that perfectly suited his bent for musing, he first stretched the familiar refrain into something almost invisible, then began to find blues-based variations.
Amazingly lyrical right-hand lines cascaded around spare, crisp left-hand chords. He found a perfect fit for the lead line from “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” then continued with spanking sharp lines as his left hand waited silently.
Even when idle, his left hand is an integral part of his delivery: Norris seems to know just the right times to let it rest, putting more focus on the other hand’s antics. Other times, in addition to laying down a ground cover of chords for his right hand’s attack, there were places, especially when he was playing unaccompanied, that his left hand ran same-time lines in counterpoint to the phrases flying from his right. When he constructed dramatic series of chords with both hands, the left often took a dissonant view, adding a chilly, uneasy feel to the passage.
Part of Norris’ genius is his ability to draw his accompanying bassist (here, the astute Putter Smith) along with him, coaching chord changes as he extends and varies a theme seemingly at his own whim. Smith was especially adept at following the piano, listening carefully and responding, echoing phrases and jumping along with unexpected chord changes whether Norris hollered them out or not. By contrast, Smith was wonderfully melodic during his own solos, playing like a singer delivering a lyric in straight-ahead style.
The first two sets included the well known (“All the Things You Are,” “I Want to Be Happy”) and the less known (Hungarian bassist Aladar Pege’s “Spider’s Web,” with its curious, scuttling, ascending lines and Norris’ own “C.J.'s Blues”). But Norris brings so much variety to a song that even the most familiar resembles an old face after a youthful make-over.
The first set was hampered by a surfeit of noise, often a problem here but especially annoying with someone of Norris’ reputation. The chance to see the Berlin-based pianist, whose credits include work with the likes of Ornette Coleman, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Charles Mingus and Pepper Adams, is a rare one, especially in such close quarters. Quiet should be enforced.
By the second set, thanks to some peer pressure applied by interested members of the audience, the noise was reduced to the usual background din, and Norris went about his business with fewer distractions. Here’s hoping his return date here Sunday will find the place packed with attentive listeners.
* Walter Norris and Putter Smith play Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at Spaghettini, 3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach. No cover. (310) 596-2199.