Chris Walden: Big Band Magic With No Bounds
AAJ: Many of the great American jazz musicians were profoundly influenced by the experiences they had working in Europe. So, you seemed to have a pretty good life in Germany. What made you come to America?
CW: I did have a very good life in Germany. I was really busy as an arranger. By the time I was 21 or 22, I was working full time as an arranger, while still studying my major in composition, which I completed by the time I was 26. But I then also got into film music, and started doing music for feature films and television. By the time I was 29, I discovered that I had worked for every major German broadcaster, producer, and singing star. And yet I still felt I was just starting out, and I wanted to learn to write big lush Hollywood film scores, and at that time in the mid-nineties, the German producers didn't really like big, lush, emotional scores. They wanted minimalistic music that does not show too much emotion. And I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to create big, lush, emotional music. And I thought that if I could not do that in Germany, that I'd have to go to a place where I can learn and eventually write that kind of music. So at age 29, I thought, well, then, I'll go to Hollywood.
AAJ: So your impetus for coming to the U.S. was to write for film.
AAJ: Well, have you written a really lush film score?
CW: Yes, I have. First of all, I did go to scoring sessions and looked over the shoulder of people like James Horner and John Williams, and studied those scores, an opportunity I would not have had if I had stayed in Germany.
AAJ: Which of your film scores would exemplify that lush style?
CW: I recently did two series for the Sci-Fi film channel called Alien Siege and Crimson Force. I believe they're out on DVD. I did the mini-series for CBS called Blonde, about Marilyn Monroe. And when I got here in 1996, I knew one TV producer beforehand, and he gave me a chance to score two TV movies for him, one for ABC and the other for CBS during the first year I was in the U.S. Unfortunately, those kind of "movies of the week, have almost disappeared completely from television.
So, I thought those opportunities would continue, but they didn't because that TV movie producer friend quit the business. Suddenly, I found myself out of work. But luckily, I was still doing work for a German television series. I scored them in L.A., and that kept me alive. But there was a drought period of at least four years before I got my first American job here in L.A. And that was writing and arranging for Nancy Wilson with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I did Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm for Nancy Wilson and symphony orchestra. That kind of put me back on the map, and I started getting calls.
AAJ: And you later did arrangements for Barbra Streisand.
CW: Jorge Calandrelli called me to help him on arrangements for Streisand a couple of years ago.
AAJ: Some film composers use a computer to arrange films scores and so on. Do you use computers?
CW: Not for arrangements, but for film scores I use the computer a lot. When writing arrangements, I use a computer, but with software that feels like pencil and paper called Finale. When I write arrangements for record dates, I don't have to preview it to anyone as one does for film directors, so I just write it down, and I don't have to demo it.
These days film composers have to preview their music for the director, so I sequence all my music into the computer, and play them back. I own sample orchestral libraries. I don't like using them, but that's the nature of the game today.
AAJ: OK, let's talk about the new big band CD, No Bounds, which I've listened to a few hundred times already. I absolutely love it. But the first thing that struck me was the album cover! It has two photos of you on an old time bicycle, and you're wearing a hat that I haven't seen for a few decades. What does all that mean in terms of what you're expressing in the music on the album? Are you going back to that time period in some way?
CW: Right, but it's not meant to be as retro as it looks. I do wear that hat every so often.
AAJ: It's the real Chris Walden!
CW: And that bicycle I bought when I lived in Germany. It's an old bakery bike. Bakery boys would use it to deliver goods to customers. And I brought this bike with me when I moved here from Germany. I live up on a hill in Upper Bel Air. We have a little grocery store close by, and I ride that bike almost every day to that grocery store. That's all real life. The only thing "set up for the photo is the trumpet casethat's something I never do any more. I love to ride bicycles. And I wear that hat. So that's me!
AAJ: As I listened to the recording, I was very struck by how fine a blend of various jazz styles I could hear. Echoes of the early Mulligan groups, swing, bebop, cool jazza lot of different influences. I just wonder if you consciously think of different styles when you write for big band.
CW: Oh definitely. It's not by accidentbut it's also not conscious. It's just what I was exposed to, and it influences the color of the music I write.
AAJ: Speaking of Mulligan, I met Gerry many years ago when I was studying trombone in New York. My teacher, Alan Raph, was the bass trombonist in Mulligan's outstanding big band. You're familiar with that band? They played in Germany on tour.
CW: Yes, I am familiar.
AAJ: There are echoes of the sound of Mulligan's band as well a number of others, it seems to me. In other words, in your CD, there are definite "references to various groups and styles.
CW: That's also why I call it No Bounds. Because I don't shy away from trying out new instrumentations or being influenced by various things. There's so much you can do with a big band.
AAJ: So you're very open in the way you approach the process. What is the challenge for you now to do big band work? You've done just about everything. I imagine composing for a full orchestra or doing a film score is much more difficult than for a big band. You obviously got into big band work out of love and your early career. What's the challenge for you now in writing for big band?
CW: Well, I would actually say it's not as easy to write for a big band as for a symphony orchestra. Sometimes, writing for less instruments is harder than writing for a lot of instruments. Because when you have a big symphony orchestra, there's always something you can bring in if you run out of ideas. You have so many avenues to go to. If you write for fewer instruments, say you write for solo cello, it's a very narrow avenue to go, and you have to bring this instrument through the music just by itself and still keep it interesting for the listener. The big band is somewhere in between a solo and a full orchestra. The big band has its standard instrumentation, and it's a challenge to re-invent it over and over again and make it still appeal to and interest the listener.
AAJ: I've read several reviews and comments on the No Bounds CD. They are all complimentary and favorable, but it appears to me that they talk about big bands nostalgically as things of the past, museum exhibits, so to speak.
CW: You know, that struck me too when I read them.
AAJ: When you work with the big band, are you nostalgic for the past?
CW: Not at all! I think that writing for big band is equivalent to writing for symphony orchestra in classical music. The big band is the standard instrumentation of jazz music as is the symphony orchestra for classical music. More or less the same instrumentation has been used for the symphony orchestra for the past two hundred years. And with such an orchestra you can play anything from Mozart until Stravinsky or even beyond, like Phillip Glass. And the same thing with the big band. With the same big band instrumentationfour trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, and rhythmyou can play from early Savoy ballroom music up to Maria Schneider's music without changing an instrument in the band.
For me "big band refers to a particular instrumentation, and for me it has no particular style associated with it. That's why I don't understand why anyone would consider big bands a thing of the past. I read the other day that young people, especially in high schools and colleges are, more than ever, listening to big bands.
AAJ: That's good to hear. There are two or three ongoing professional big bands that I'm familiar with in Philadelphia. They're excellent, but they're hard to keep going because of the number of musicians that have to be paid for a performance, and because it's hard to get all the guys together on a frequent basis.
By the way, the musicians in your own big band are phenomenal! And I'm sure they're all individualists as well.
CW: Yes, they are.
AAJ: So, I wonder how you can get a group such as this together in the first place. They're all working multiple gigs; very busy earning a living, traveling a lot. Also, how do you get them to function as a tight unit? The consistency and blending is terrific in your CD. By the way, how did you recruit these guys?
CW: I have to tell you first that the whole idea of my putting together a big band was actually an idea that came from the musicians. It was not my idea initially. As I mentioned earlier, I came to L.A. in 1996, and I did the two TV films and also had some commitments from Germany, so I was in contact with musicians from the moment I got here. So I worked with studio musicians right away, and from early on, they said they really liked my music.
At first I thought, "That's what they all say just to get called again. But then I found they really meant it, and they said, "We really like what you did for this film or this recording, but we'd love to play the music you write just for yourself. Why don't you put together a rehearsal band? We'll meet at the union every other week and we'll just play your music that's not meant for production, just whatever you feel like writing. And so I did. I started this rehearsal band at the union, and we tried out stuff. And after a year, we decided to put this up on stage and played at Catalina's in Hollywood. And these are the same guys I use to this day in my big band as well as on recording dates. So I think the secret behind it is that I still have the same guys when we play at a jazz club, where I can pay very little money, but I hire them for paying jobs like the Michael Bolton Swings Sinatra (Concord, 2006) CD. So they know that they do jazz gigs for little money, but they get paid well on my gigs for film and record dates.
AAJ: So the ensemble sense is really facilitated when guys work together often.
CW: Exactly. And even though our big band plays at jazz clubs only three or four times a year, we do play a lot together on all sorts of productions.
AAJ: Do you do road trips with the band, or do you expect to in the future? People around the country would love to hear the band live.
CW: So far we haven't traveled a lot since the gigs don't pay enough to cover our travel and hotel expenses, so we only play where we can return the same night, like San Diego or Santa Barbara. The band doesn't pay for itself. Partly, I finance it with my own money. So it's a labor of love. But it's also a good promotion tool for me. Through my big band activities, I did get those two Grammy nominations, and that got me more work from Michael Bolton and others.
AAJ: It's a balancing act. And it's enriching to go back and forth between the more lucrative formats and then just doing your thing.
CW: And when I write for Christopher Cross or Michael Bolton, I do it with the same passion as when I write for my own band. Except that when I write for my own band, I have more creative freedom.