SOUTH NEWFANE — Known locally in several circles from restorative justice trainings to fine cabinetmaking, Dan DeWalt is, at the core, a musician: a solo and ensemble player on piano and trombone, an accompanist, and a composer.
Heard on other artists' albums and having produced a couple of his own in recent years, DeWalt is in a prolific season, now working on four new recordings simultaneously, the recently released Time to Face the Music among them.
"I'm excited about it," says DeWalt. "It was all pretty homegrown. I invited Wim Auer, a wonderful bassist, and Tim Gilmore, a fantastic drummer, to come to my house on a Monday morning."
DeWalt and Auer have been working together since 1980, most memorably in the late band, Simba. He and Gilmore have "played on and off for a decade or two."
At the South Newfane home that DeWalt built himself, the trio recorded seven songs, with no rehearsal.
"The music we've played together in the last couple of decades serves us well," he says. "Most tunes only needed one take. No dubbing or angst - just three musicians together, playing for each other."
DeWalt, whose grandfather was a professional trombonist ("and my grandmother was a flapper," he adds), started piano in second grade. By his senior year in high school he was tackling Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C minor. He earned a bachelor's degree from Marlboro College, where he studied voice with Blanche Moyse and piano with Joe Schaeffer and Nigel Coxe.
He'd picked up trombone in high school, played in different bands, and later took up a few other instruments - accordion, among them.
"I spend most of my time with trombone and piano, though," he said.
DeWalt taught himself to improvise. "From the get-go, I improvised. I was always more interested in making it up." And he started composing while at Marlboro.
The seven tunes on Time to Face the Music - all by DeWalt except "Dashed Hopes," which his brother, musician Mark DeWalt, composed - reflect DeWalt's influencers.
"I'm a big fan of Latin music; I play trombone in a Latin big band, so I listen to it all the time," he says, and that rings true with the heavy salsa rhythm of Quantum Hitch, for instance.
"I also like lots of jazz. If I had to classify my music [...] it'd be jazz. I like Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, and Bill Evans - [even though] he's the opposite of Monk," he says.
"If you listen to my music," DeWalt continues, "you have an idea of what I'm like inside. With its tension and release and the energy felt therein - that's indicative of my psyche."
He calls himself "a big fan of dissonance and rhythmic exploration," he adds, and that's evident on a few tracks, but in "Marley Ju Ju," with its sustained tension, there's also lovely lyricism, and "Kick Ass Granny" just feels like good swing.
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Considering the question of what is the catalyst for his compositions, DeWalt says: "I want to stay alive, and music is part of that. I've been upset about my world and interested in changing it."
He says that "it's not like this is something new."
"I've been paying attention since I was a teenager, but this is definitely the worst [of times]," he says. "Our culture is tanking, our attention span sucks, our understanding about […] our place in the world is just misplaced, and our ability to do anything about it is so limited."
DeWalt adds that if he didn't have music, "I'd dig a hole in the ground and crawl in."
"It's hard to get up in the morning and be anything but enraged and depressed, so gardening and music - growing things and creating music is how I [get by]," he says. "As humanity crashes and burns, we can all use some music to keep up our strength to work for a better world."
He says he's always used his compositions to "register what's important" to him.
"I'm interested in pushing edges," DeWalt says. "I like jagged edges."
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DeWalt's stepson, musician Joel Eisenkramer, recorded, mixed, and mastered Time to Face the Music, which is available on streaming and download at dandewalt.bandcamp.com/album/time-to-face-the-music.
DeWalt is also working on a CD with Wes Brown and Julian Gerstin as Trio Mambo and on a solo recording of 11 impromptus on piano. "That's stream of consciousness," he says.
The last recording on DeWalt's radar now will be of Music of the Spirit, a piano concert of spirituals that DeWalt will perform at the Beloved Community church - the merged Methodist and Baptist churches - on Town Crier Drive in Brattleboro on Friday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m. Admission will be by donation, and the concert will be recorded live and CDs produced to benefit the BCC.
Among his regular gigs, DeWalt plays piano for Beloved Community.
"Virtually all of the preludes and postludes I play at the services come from the Afro-American spiritual tradition," he writes. "I am well aware that I am a White person, and I have lived a privileged life without significant adversity."
But, he says, this music, "born of oppression and fortitude, moves me unlike any other."
"We live in a world that is still full of oppression, inequality, prejudice, and violence. This music remains a powerful response to these evils and is a force for inspiration and a call to action," DeWalt says.
"Every note that I play at this concert will be a silent prayer of determination and inspiration to make us all work to change this endless, ever-deadening course that is slowly but surely destroying us and our planet."
Annie Landenberger is an arts writer and columnist for The Commons. She remains involved with the Rock River Players, the community theater that she founded and directed for years. She also is one half of the musical duo Bard Owl, with partner T. Breeze Verdant.
This The Arts column by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.