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Chris Walden: Big Band Magic With No Bounds

By Published: September 25, 2006

Working With Vocalists

AAJ: On the No Bounds CD, I loved vocalist Tierney Sutton on "People Will Say We're in Love and "Smile. She has a beautiful, transparent voice, but also has a soulful way of singing. I'm just wondering how you first got to hear her sing?

CW: Someone gave me a CD of hers, and I immediately thought, "Well, this is really outstanding. I was just finishing up the first album, Home of My Heart, and I needed a guest vocalist, so I called her up and asked if she would be interested. She had no idea who I was, but agreed and said "Yes. And that was the first time we met.

AAJ: I'm interested in the creative process as such. You've done considerable work with vocalists. How do you get into the particular singer's style in order to incorporate it into the arrangements? Do you meet with them and talk with them first?

CW: Sometimes, but for me it's more important to hear them sing. I listen to their recordings. I try to feature their strengths in my arrangements or give them room to show their strengths when they sing. As an arranger, you're just basically trying to stay out of their way and to make them sound and look good.

AAJ: For the Bolton recording, did you also listen to Sinatra?

CW: Of course. I had to. Michael wanted to stick really close to Sinatra's original recordings and arrangements, which for me was a great opportunity—to study these great arrangements by Nelson Riddle and Billy May and Don Costa. I transcribed these arrangements. The difficulty with Michael is that he sings all these songs in different keys—he sings them almost a fourth higher than the original Sinatra key. The original arrangements did not work in Michael's key, so I had to then adapt them into a different key and rework the voicings so they would work again.

AAJ: So did you basically adjust the old charts, or try to create something new?

CW: Both, actually. On some songs, Michael had a specific idea or wish. On "Fly Me to the Moon or "Night and Day he wanted it really close to the original, so I didn't have much creative freedom there. But on other songs, like "My Funny Valentine, Michael said, "Do your own arrangements. It was about half the songs following the original, and half I could do it my own way.

AAJ: "My Funny Valentine inspires so much creativity from jazz players. Of course, there are the famous versions by Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and also Paul Desmond. I heard Ron Carter and Mulgrew Miller do it in a small group at Newport, and it was unbelievable what they were able to milk out of that song!

CW: Exactly. That's a song that's been recorded so many times and there are so many great versions out there. So I was honestly a bit afraid to tackle that song initially!

AAJ: But it also allows you to bring out your own creative impulse. In a certain sense, all composing is improvising.

CW: Yes, you're right. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

The European Influence and Other Subjects

AAJ: To shift topics a bit, I've listened to European jazz often, and sometimes I hear—or think I hear—a slight difference in their style than that of American musicians. But on your CD No Bounds you've really assimilated the American tradition so seamlessly. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel that European players' syncopation is a bit different from the U.S.

CW: You're absolutely right about that difference. There's even a difference here between East and West Coast players, how they do the syncopations.

AAJ: In general, coming from Europe, how would you compare the culture and the jazz scene in the U.S. compared with Europe?

CW: In terms of jazz, I think that the cultural exchange between the U.S. and Europe was always a very healthy one. And the influence of the U.S. on Europe was bigger than vice-versa, naturally, since jazz is an American art form, which, however, initially derived partly from European march music combined with African beat, and so on. But there is some influence from European jazz back to American music. And it's very good.

There are some other instances where I think the American influence isn't always the best, as when I see a McDonalds in every corner of the world.

AAJ: A propos of the positive influence of Europeans on American jazz, Bernard Peiffer was a jazz pianist from France who mentored many of the finest younger generation of jazz pianists in the Philadelphia area. He was a child prodigy who went to Paris and played with Django Reinhardt. Peiffer never became famous as a player, but was a very influential teacher. His son recently came out with a CD of Peiffer's solo performances. It includes a "Prelude and Fugue on Lullaby of Birdland which is remarkable. It's as if Bach came back to life as a jazz musician. Amazing! Peiffer has thus had a very strong and positive impact on American jazz, a good example of what you're talking about. In any event, jazz is no longer an exclusively American art form—it's really an international music.

CW: Oh, definitely.

AAJ: I noticed that on your website, you have a photo of yourself with Michael Brecker. He's originally from the Philadelphia area and is a very beloved person in addition to being such a phenomenal musician. I understand that he's been quite ill.

CW: Yes, he has a pre-leukemic disease called MDS.

AAJ: How did you get to know Michael?

CW: At that time, I was still in Germany, and I did my first big band album under my own name in 1995. Michael was touring with his brother Randy, and happened to be in Cologne. I got a hold of his hotel phone number, and I called him up and asked if he'd be willing to play two solos on my album. He had no idea who I was, but he happened to have a day off the next day, and he said, "OK, I'll come by. And he played two solos on my first big band album.

AAJ: That must have been a thrill.

CW: It was an absolute thrill for me. It was an all-German band, and it was mind-blowing for us to have Michael do these solos. And ever since, we've stayed in contact. He's overall my favorite saxophonist. From what I've heard, he's not completely over his illness, but musicians close to him tell me that he's had his first therapies and is on his way to recovery. Not really out of the woods yet, but hopefully on the way.

AAJ: Some things about you. If you were given a small fortune and total freedom, how would you spend your time?

CW: It wouldn't be much different from what I'm doing now, since what I'm doing now is what I've always wanted to do. I wanted to write for big band, films, recording artists. If I had a little more money, I probably would write a symphony and record it. And travel the world with my kids. I'm married and have two kids, seven and eight years old.

AAJ: Are they musically inclined?

CW: They both take piano lessons. In fact the teacher just walked through the door. My kids—especially my son—wouldn't study with me. If you are a parent and a professional musician, it's harder to get your kids to do music! My wife is a musician too, and they feel the pressure.

AAJ: Let's finish up with a view of your attitudes, your perspective. You've lived and worked in different cultures, different places. What's your take about life? What's really important, really central to you? Do you have a spiritual orientation?

CW: Not really. I'm not really religious. I would even say I'm not really spiritual, although my wife says I'm a lot more spiritual than I admit. My wife is very spiritual. My life philosophy is that I try not to be an asshole!

AAJ: That's great! That's historic! [laughter]. I don't know if anything needs to be added to that, but Charlie Parker said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn. To conclude, let me ask if you're trying to convey some aspect of your life in your music.

CW: I just try to write what I really want to write. A task that you have to learn and keep learning is to be able to write down what you hear. That's the most important and the most difficult thing. Anyone can write some music. But to write exactly what you had in mind is the hardest thing. There are very few who come close to achieving that perfection.

AAJ: How would a listener know if that's happening?

CW: As a listener, you can't know. Only the person who writes the music knows if it came out the way he or she wanted it.

AAJ: When you write, in addition to the notes, do you sometimes hear something of yourself?

CW: Yes, I do. But it's hard to put into words. I always have a vision of the music I want to write, but to put it on paper doesn't always work the way I want it to. For example, when I come up with a melody, I'm not always satisfied with it—it should sound different.

David BinneyAAJ: Do you try to manifest the blues and soul?

CW: Charlie Parker said, to do jazz you have to live jazz. Well, yes and no. I'm always a little suspicious of that. That may apply for the early forms of blues. The workers in the cotton fields—they may have expressed their hard times and found relief in the blues music they played. But nowadays, when I see musicians who are fucked up on drugs, for example, their music is not particularly interesting. I once had a talk with Bob Brookmeyer about it. He said that when his life was pretty crazy, his music was actually boring, and that once he became sober, and his life became boring, his music is pretty crazy! [laughter].

AAJ: That's very striking. I never heard quite that take.

CW: What if Charlie Parker had been sober? His music might have been even better.

AAJ: Well, I'm not talking about doing drugs. I'm talking about soul and sometimes the suffering that's involved.

CW: I don't really get the suffering part.

AAJ: I think Brookmeyer has a lot of soul. In his case, I'm not clear what I mean by that, maybe it's his playfulness with the tunes—very spontaneous and alive. And think of Oscar Peterson, there's so much feeling in his playing, yet he's a pretty straight-ahead kind of guy. And your CD has "soul. It affected me, especially the ballads. The cello piece at the end by Otterkamp—that's gorgeous, very soulful.

CW: I think I definitely put my soul into my music. As I said before, I'm into lush, emotional music, and I am an emotional and a romantic person, so I think that also plays into my music.

Selected Discography

Chris Walden Big Band, Winter Games (Origin, 2006)
Chris Walden Big Band, No Boundaries (Origin, 2006)
Michael Bolton, Bolton Swings Sinatra (Concord, 2006) (Arranger/Orchestration)
John Pizzarelli, Dear Mr. Sinatra (Telarc, 2006) (Arranger/Orchestration)
Gladys Knight, Before Me (Verve, 2006) (Orchestration)
Chris Walden Big Band, Home of My Heart (Origin, 2005)
Ela David Cmiral, Wes Craven Presents They (La-La Land, 2003) (Orchestration)
Chris Walden, Ticino (ACT, 1996)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Chris Walden

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