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Holding Fast to the Sound of New Orleans

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Musician Robert Walter moved to New Orleans earlier this year, hoping to infuse his funk-jazz sound with the city's rich musical history. Walter found the sound he was looking for — his new album Super Heavy Organ is backed by well-respected New Orleans musicians. But Walter left his adopted city since Hurricane Katrina, which struck just when his album came out. Reporter Molly Peterson profiles Walter's dedication to the sound of a city.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, how to build an earthquake-safe bridge between San Francisco and the East Bay.

First, this: rebuilding in New Orleans. As the physical cleanup from Katrina continues, so does the effort to revive the city's legendary music scene. It hurt when hometown heroes Art and Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers said that they were moving out. But a newcomer to the city, organist Robert Walter, is back and performing again, and reporter Molly Peterson has been listening.

(Soundbite of music)


Every New Orleans musician has a temple. Robert Walter's is the Maple Leaf Bar. It's not much to look at--dingy red walls, a bare light bulb in the ceiling fan--but sitting in the Maple Leaf now, Robert Walter remembers his first pilgrimage just after high school.

Mr. ROBERT WALTER (Musician): The Maple Leaf--I had read about James Booker playing here, and I was a big fan of James Booker's piano music, and so this was one of the places I wanted to see when I first came to New Orleans. And I came down and I got to play on the piano at the set break. I was just a beginning pianist at the time, but I was all psyched to be playing in, you know, James Booker's place.

(Soundbite of music)

PETERSON: Growing up in San Diego, Walter envied the oral tradition of New Orleans music, passed down through families and swapped around town night after night by performers in clubs.

Mr. WALTER: And I liked sort of that plain-old, working-class jazz a lot of the time. I thought those guys were sort of the unsung heroes. Hold up ordinary things in the right light and you can realize their merit.

(Soundbite of music)

PETERSON: One of those working guys is Tim Green. He plays tenor sax in more than a dozen bands around town.

Mr. WALTER: It feels to me like he's conjuring up some emotions, both good and bad, and sort seems more like an exorcism of some kind of stuff inside him that comes out of the saxophone. It doesn't sound like he's spitting back a bunch of technical vocabulary; it sounds emotional.

(Soundbite of music)

PETERSON: In San Diego, in his first band, Walter played organ with the Greyboy All-stars. Their music, a blend of funk and jazz, revered the '60s organ records Walter bought in California thrift stores. But for Walter, it began to lack feeling.

Mr. WALTER: It was a very strict thing, the way--the kind of grooves that we were playing, you know, we thought of it as like scientific, almost, you know, and these things are allowed and these things are not, and--which eventually became sort of like a prison.

(Soundbite of music)

PETERSON: When Walter started looking past San Diego, he saw New Orleans. He moved his family here last year, and on his new album called "Super Heavy Organ," Walter asked New Orleanians to play with him. Besides Green, he taps into a local sound with two drummers who alternate on the tracks. Johnny Vidacovich is part of the contemporary jazz quartet the Astral Project. He's more painterly, with cymbal flourishes above his drums.

(Soundbite of music)

PETERSON: And Stanton Moore plays with the funk band, Galactic. Like Walter, he's young, so rap and rock influence his more aggressive style.

(Soundbite of "Spell")

PETERSON: This song, "Spell," was an accident, a jam from recording. It's a sign of Walter's growing confidence in playing in the moment. Walter was on the road when Katrina hit, with Vidacovich and yet another city dweller, bass player James Singleton, and he'll tour more in the coming months than he planned. But the destruction of New Orleans and its music economy has only strengthened Walter's commitment to the city's music ethos.

Mr. WALTER: I think the real interesting stuff is in your frailties and your mistakes. And when I see music, I want to know who the people really are, not sort of their idealized superself. And if someone's compelling, they're compelling in all those ways.

(Soundbite of music)

PETERSON: Walter lives uptown right near the Maple Leaf Bar. He was lucky; his house stayed mostly dry. He had to clean out his refrigerator, of course--everyone did--but he's going to hold on to it and his adopted home, for a while. To him, they're still new. For NPR News, I'm Molly Peterson in New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More in a moment from DAY TO DAY.

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