Walt Wagner


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Beginning in the late '90s, pianist Walt Wagner held sway as the house pianist at Seattle's Canlis restaurant. A gifted jazz performer, Wagner began his tenure at Canlis playing American popular song standards, but eventually developed his own brand of jazz and classical-influenced covers of modern pop and rock songs. Those maverick cover songs or reworkings are the focus of his superb 2017 album and Sub Pop debut, Reworks. A live album, Reworks documents Wagner's final solo performance at Canlis; 73 years old at the time of recording, he announced his retirement from the restaurant in 2016. Not only are the actual performances compelling, but also his choice of material. Much like fellow jazz mavericks Brad Mehldau and the Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson, Wagner takes contemporary rock songs and turns them into atmospheric instrumentals rife with harmonic and lyrical nuance. However, rather than pick popular mainstream hits, he instead focuses on lesser-covered indie rock songs by such well-respected acts as Phoenix, Fleet Foxes, and DJ Shadow. In fact, the only song that really counts as a contemporary pop standard is Prince's "Purple Rain," which Wagner does here in his own urbane style. What's particularly fascinating is to hear how Wagner transforms what are historically enigmatic and ambient songs into modern-day standards, in the case of My Bloody Valentine's "I Only Said" bringing the song's wave-like structure into crisp, melodic focus. It's an approach that brings to mind the similarly genre-bending '60s work of pianist Dave Brubeck. Similarly, his cheery take on the Buzzcocks' propulsive '70s punk anthem "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)" recalls Vince Guaraldi's work on the Peanuts soundtracks. Elsewhere, songs like the Left Banke's poignant 1967 single "Desiree" require less heavy lifting and fit nicely into Wagner's sparkling, dinner party-friendly style.

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