Justin Walter

Instinct and wonder

Text by Maya Kalev

Photography by Doug Coombe

“In the beginning there was no aesthetic at all,” Justin Walter says of his debut solo album for Kranky, Lullabies and Nightmares. “When I set out to record this album, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to record the most beautiful music I could. And then, piece by piece, this picture started to form.”

Like its many meandering, indeterminate moods, Lullabies and Nightmares is tricky to categorise, drawing on free jazz, luminous synth-wave and soporific ambient styles. The album’s 11 improvised tracks play on the discordance between the trumpet, “soothing like a lullaby”, and the electronic valve instrument (EVI), a breath-powered analogue synth. Driven by Walter’s instinct for improvisation and powered largely by his mouth and breath, the resulting record is intensely intimate. But though it shimmers with lambent beauty, it’s also dissonant and painterly, a tapestry of loops, arpeggios and improvised passages. While the gentle synth undulations of songs such as “Sister Sleeper” recall Plaid at their loveliest, the title track is a fitful free-jazz exploration that evokes Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, marrying the scratchy loops of the EVI with a jarring trumpet countermelody.

After years playing trumpet in the “post-Afrobeat” band NOMO, Justin Walter was introduced to the EVI by his saxophonist bandmate Dan Bennett. Intrigued, he set out not to master it, but to explore its seemingly infinite possibilities. He explains: “We were both sort of exploring pedals at the same time. As horn players, that’s the next step after you’ve spent $10,000 on mouthpieces and other horns that don’t work out. Dan’s like, ‘You need to check out this EWI’, which is a MIDI wind controller for sax players with an internal menu that allows you to program it so trumpet players can use it. Man, I ordered that thing in like two minutes! After a few weeks of sitting in the park playing my battery-powered MIDI EWI I discover that back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, they actually made a real analogue version just for trumpet players, so I sent my EWI back and picked up this EVI. I think I had a gig on it the day it arrived. And that was that.”

Being in a band provided Walter with exactly the platform he needed to explore the nature of the EVI, an instrument that excited him in part by virtue of its obscurity. “It really doesn’t play like anything else, and having the opportunity to go completely insane on it night after night with such an intense band really opened my eyes to what it could do. Once I realised that it was uncharted ground in terms of how this instrument had been documented, I figured it was my duty to explore and record. I mean, there weren’t that many made. Nobody knows what it is. So I began recording at home and never really thought twice about it. The most amazing thing about this instrument is how it plays when you have no idea how to play it, so when you learn how to play it, what you get is you, plus the instrument producing something you could have never come up with on your own. It still amazes me.”

That sense of wide-eyed wonder permeates the record, a lucid, continually surprising take on melodic instrumental music and a complex balancing act between instinct and experimentation. Its clear focus on live performance and its lack of any premeditated aesthetic bar a love of beauty is also refreshing. Lullabies and Nightmares is in fact so overwhelmingly present that its creator failed to anticipate his inability to reproduce it. Once the record was complete, Walter had to learn how to play his own music by listening to the recordings. As he puts it: “Improvisation isn’t just freeing, it’s also extremely meaningful, with mistakes and rewards and mistakes that become rewards.” §

Lullabies and Nightmares by Justin Walter is out now on Kranky.

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