New album debuts June 8 with a live performance at Franklin Park Arts Center.

By Andrew D. Parker

Improvisational musicians often are like chemists—experimenting with notes, chords and arrangements instead of chemical compounds. Similar to chemistry, mixing two musical approaches can result in an entirely new style as unique and interesting as the elements used to create it.

Pianist, composer, performer, music teacher and Loudoun resident Quentin Walston has created a distinctive sound through his mixology of folk and jazz music with his Loudoun upbringing. His style is on full display on his new album, which is being released June 8 in unison with a performance at Franklin Park Arts Center.

The new album is Walston’s first release featuring his original jazz compositions. He wrote eight of the nine tracks, with a Thelonious Monk arrangement thrown in for good measure. Walston’s first solo jazz EP released in 2017, “Introduction,” with a selection of five standards.

Quentin Walston a pianist, composer, and educator poses for a photo at his home in Western Loudoun County Virginia. (Photo by Douglas Graham/WLP)

Local Roots

Walston’s growth as a musician is intertwined with Loudoun’s emergence as a hub for artists—and audiences—of varied backgrounds and musical tastes. He credits Loudoun as providing the setting to learn and grow as a young student of music, while also being the ideal place to launch a professional career. 

Walston started performing live as the vocalist and harmonica player with folk band Jake and the Burtones, which, at age 15, “really exposed me to the world of improvisation.” He recorded an EP with the group in 2010 and then released a solo folk album in 2012, on which he sang and played guitar, harmonica, ukulele in addition to piano.

In the early days, Walston didn’t see the live folk performances ever connecting into his weekly piano lessons. Then his friend who was auditioning for a jazz program showed him a lead sheet, which looked like “gibberish” to Walston.

“I had no idea how to interpret jazz chords,” he said. That sparked a drive to learn and a much bigger idea about how to blend his two passions. 

Connecting the Chords

“I call myself a pianist and I really like improvisation. There’s got to be something I can do to find the juncture of the two,” Walston said he thought at the time. That planted a seed that has influenced his path toward launching his solo career while playing with numerous musicians and starting several bands—including Grooveyard, The Green Chimneys, Voyage and Sweet Something.

Walston’s experimental nature can be found in his duo, trio and quartet groups, which often use “laboratories” to spark spontaneity and come up with new arrangements. Two of the people that he enjoys playing with most are bass guitarist Zack Williams and drummer Patrick Foit. They’ve jammed together since their days in the Loudoun Valley High School jazz band. “I find that when Zack and I can really lock in, the songs just go in a very cool direction where I might not have initially considered going,” Walston said.

His approach has also matured in that Walston seeks to compose music and improvise with the audience in mind first, instead of focusing too much energy on technical prowess, or playing “fast and flashy.” Now that he’s satisfied with the skills side of music, Walston said, “the question is how musical can I play, where I feel other people will enjoy themselves?”

Habitat for Musicians

Noting that there’s great opportunities elsewhere, Walston had numerous options to start his professional career in music. These included big city music scenes like in Philadelphia or New York, or something more rural such as Harrisonburg, where he graduated from James Madison University and met his wife. Instead, he chose to return to Loudoun because “it has the rural aspect, it has the folky aspect, it has the historical aspect—and it also has the musical scene. Plus, you can go farther east in Loudoun if you want to get that more metropolitan feel.”

The county has something to offer for artists at all levels of performance, he said. “The coffee shops where you need to just get in the experience playing in front of people—Loudoun has that. Then there are background music gigs where you’re really refining your sound. Loudoun has plenty of breweries and wineries.”

Then there are larger venues, such as Franklin Park Arts Center, where Walston is performing June 8 to launch the new album. “Loudoun is a great place to develop as an artist, and where I want to be, because it has the whole package,” he said.

Making It in 2019

More than anything, Walston is feeling “incredibly lucky” these days to be able to carve out a career in music, between his live performances, studio recording and work as a music teacher at the Catoctin School of Music in Leesburg. 

“My freshman year in college, I told myself that I’m going to do everything in my power to be a full-time musician,” he said. 

Streaming services have made the situation more challenging for musicians in today’s environment. Many artists hold day jobs and perform as a hobby or second job. “I love that you have the opportunity to get your music out there, but if you actually look at the numbers, it’s laughable for how much you receive,” he said of streaming service payments, adding that he hopes Congress moves forward legislation to make revenue sharing more equitable for artists. 

This imbalance in modern equity for artists also contributed to Walston’s decision to release vinyl copies of his new album, with a nod to record aficionados, as the medium has made a comeback in recent years.

“You can’t stream vinyl,” Walston said.

Find out more at quentinwalston.com and facebook.com/QuentinWalston. Learn more about his educational lessons at thecatoctinschoolofmusic.com.

aparker@loudounnow.com