Myron Walden: Higher Ground (2002)
For those as yet unfamiliar, Walden is a 20-some old alto saxophonist from Miami who first gained notable experience playing with Wynton Marsalis, Nat Adderley and Lou Donaldson, and later went on to play with and be featured in ensembles led by Jason Lindner (Lindner Big Band), Brian Blade (Fellowship) and the New Jazz Composers Octet, of which he is a founding member. Many are also familiar with Walden from his association with the Smalls venue in the East Village, where he has been a fixture playing and siding in various configurations, including Lindner’s house big band. To date Walden has two recordings as a leader, “Hipnosis” and “Like a Flower Seeking the Sun”, both cut for Mike Mainieri’s NYC label.
Myron Walden in addition to these playing credentials, is moreover fast gaining the rep as being one of the true bright stars of his generation. There's clearly some basis for this. Walden has a very distinctive sharp tone with a rounded nasaly-inflection; it's quite easy to recognize Walden within a few bars in fact, and how many players can we say this about these days? Furthermore, Walden has shown the ability to develop solos with both an incisive logic and an organic level of invention. Hearing him at sessions or on record, one scarcely feels he's resting on his own licks and patterns. And as if this were not enough, his composing is at a level well above the merely ordinary. Walden the writer avoids cliché and uses harmonies that underline his own harmonic approach as a soloist. Thelonious Monk and Joe Henderson were composers who used composition as a means of further articulating the fundamental ways they heard harmony, and this approach to writing reaps the reward of the artist seeming to have a more singular vision. When one can hear characteristics of an artist’s solos within their compositions, and vice versa, they’re clearly concerned with a singular “sound”, a musical voice defined by unity of conception.
The entire program of this cd is his originals, so that speaks of a certain self-confidence in his abilities as a composer if nothing else.
Another younger player that is getting a buzz amongst musicians these days of course is Myron’s cohort here, the tenor player Marcus Strickland. Since this record, while under Walden’s name, basically amounts to a co-billing of Walden and Strickland as featured soloists, it’s appropriate to draw attention to Strickland for a moment. For those familiar with Strickland from either his work with Lonnie Plaxico or his debut recording (also on Fresh Sound) this is quite an interesting occasion to hear him play. It offers the opportunity to hear him in a more pared down, essential setting in which, also in lieu of many fast numbers here, his nuance as a soloist is shown in greater relief. He acquits himself very well in this setting, and it begs the question of him doing a trio record.
Hearing these two play against each other though is really the most fruitful thing of this recording. From the outset, they offer a unique contrast in style- Myron, an often-ecstatic, freely inventive soloist with a pointed tone v. Marcus- the more patient, steady improviser with a rather husky, mellow tone. It is perhaps a superficial comparison, but in some ways the contrast between these soloists on Alto and Tenor reminds of Eric Dolphy playing with John Coltrane. The influence of Trane is certainly apparent in Strickland’s playing, in spite of the fact that he takes a more steady approach as a soloist. And it’s clear that Walden has listened to some Eric Dolphy in his lifetime, in addition to what are probably healthy doses of Jackie McLean and Ornette Coleman. He has a sound that is far from derivative or merely the sum of its influences though, and this is why many are encouraged by his playing. Unlike a good number of neo-bop players out there, Walden actually does seem to have the mark of an original. This is a revelation that bears worth repeating when many question aloud whether there are any original voices anymore.
The enthusiasm and dedication to creativity and doing something out-of-the ordinary is a tangible thing in this music. Walden and Strickland, in addition to offering a nice contrast in style, often seem to feed off each other’s energy and get in some really bright exchanges. Their playing here is interactive-minded and not concerned with showing off chops or being a badass, as much as either may be capable of doing that. They interact most profitably in the form of cross-soloing: “When Time Stood Still” is the money track on this rec and the purely intense cross-soloing would be the reason why. While it sounds like chaos, listen closely and hear the distinct attempts to intertwine. Also, in lieu of a chordal/arpeggiating instrument they often play melodic refrains and quotes behind each other’s solos; this is going the extra mile.
In short, this is a democratic effort by serious musicians concerned with bringing off some serious music. Props are definitely in order for the rhythm section who clearly "set the table" here. E.J.'s playing on drums is arguably the driving force of this band. And while Walden is leader here and both his soloing and writing are very hip, he deserves more credit for simply helping bring the group concept here to life. It's a true "fresh sound" and may we only be fortunate enough to hear a sequel of some kind.
This is unequivocally, in this writer’s estimation, a top-ten pick for 2002. Although Fresh Sound cds are notoriously hard to find, jazzbos should go out of their way to locate this cd. The playing here by these young musicians should at least partially restore the faith of those who find themselves discouraged by the potential of young artists to be original, following the great fizz-out after all that was the “Young Lions” decade.
Track Listing: Solid; Page One; Slow and Steady; You Dig; Higher Ground; When Time Stood Still; High Above the Clouds. MYRON WALDEN, composer on all selections.
Personnel: Myron Walden- Alto saxophone. Marcus Strickland- Tenor saxophone. Brandon Owens- Bass. E.J. Strickland- Drums.
Record Label: Blue Moon