Chris Walden: Big Band Magic With No Bounds


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I would actually say it
Chris WaldenChris Walden is a highly gifted and creative composer and arranger who is equally at home writing and conducting music for film, TV, and jazz venues. Based in Los Angeles, he came to the U.S. from Germany in 1996, where, in his twenties, he had already established a fine reputation in multiple aspects of the music business. His recent Grammy nominations for his debut big band CD Home of My Heart (Origin, 2005) and the release of the follow-up CD, No Bounds (Origin, 2006), provided the occasion for an All About Jazz interview. I wanted to pick his brains about the big band, the inside story of how a composer-arranger works creatively, and how he made the cultural transition from Germany to America.

On August 7, 2006, I called Walden at his home in Bel Air, California, and he proved to be a delightful person with a winning spontaneity and candor. His ever so slight German accent gave an international feel to the dialogue, and his insightful understanding of music and life made the interview stream forth as it makes his music flow into interesting pathways and byways. It is as much a pleasure to talk with him as it is to listen to his music. I think you'll very much enjoy and be enlightened by what Chris has to say.

Chapter Index

Coming Up in Germany
Adjusting to the Music Business in L.A.
Composing, Arranging and Conducting for the Big Band
Working With Vocalists
The European Influence and Other Subjects

All About Jazz: OK, we'll begin with what seems to be my trademark first question: the notorious desert island. What are a few recordings and perhaps musical scores you'd take with you to that desert island?

Chris Walden: The first recording that comes to mind is The Bill Evans Trio with Orchestra, arranged by Claus Ogerman. That's really high on my list. And also a recording of Brahms' Symphony No. 4. And Miles Davis with Gil Evans, Miles Ahead, with "The Duke, the first recording they did in that series.

AAJ: You didn't mention any saxophonists.

CW: When it comes to sax players, probably something of Mike Brecker.

Coming Up in Germany

AAJ: Your many accomplishments and credits are remarkable, especially since, in your photos, you look very young.

CW: I'm thirty-nine. But most people think I'm younger. In my profession, when you go to conduct an orchestra, or audition for a film, or have a meeting with producers, they often expect somebody gray-haired. I had a few experiences, especially in Germany, in my late twenties, I'd walk in, and they'd say, "Oh, you must be Mr. Walden's driver, or "Could you send in your dad? [Laughter.] And when you're standing in front of an orchestra, it can actually hurt you if you look young on the podium. They're often older musicians, and they often don't take you seriously. For me, I have to prove within the first five minutes that I know what I'm talking about. And my music speaks for itself. I started early, and I was thrown into cold water, so to speak, very early on.

AAJ: You started out in Germany. You're originally from Hamburg?

CW: Yes. My mother is a classical choir singer. So from a very early age, I already saw musicians coming to our house for rehearsals. Since my mother was into old Renaissance and Baroque music, these musicians were bringing old instruments, like Baroque trombones and viola da gambas, and lutes! I asked these musicians if I could try out these instruments, and a few of them let me do it. That fascinated me. And then at age seven, I started playing piano. At age 13, I picked up the trumpet, and that almost naturally led me to jazz and big band. I played trumpet in my high school big band.

AAJ: How did you first start listening to jazz? Were there nightclubs in Hamburg, recordings, radio?

CW: My parents occasionally took me to jazz concerts and jazz clubs, like Sunday matinees when they allowed kids in. I was hooked, and I wanted to do that too. My first record was Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie Live at Birdland. "Night in Tunisia was the first jazz song I ever transcribed from a recording. Then, my trumpet teachers taught me a little bit of jazz. At age 16, I started earning my first money as a musician, playing on weekends in casual bands and dance bands. At about the same time, I started taking an interest in arrangements. I transcribed "Jumpin' at the Woodside for my high school big band. At some point, I joined the German National Youth Big Band, had just been founded in 1986 or 1987. Their conductor, Peter Herbolzheimer, was really responsible for my later career, as he encouraged me to write for that band and also took me under his wing for the arrangements he did for the local radio big bands. He gave me the opportunity to arrange for those bands.

At that time, in the 1980s, almost every German city had a fully employed radio big band. That was very unique, unlike the U.S. or any other European country. The only exception was the U.K., which had big bands funded by public radio. These bands consisted of great players, and they rehearsed, recorded, and worked every day, and they needed parts and arrangements every day, so there was a big demand for arrangements. So by the time I was 20 or 21, I was staff arranger for one of those radio big bands.

AAJ: How do you learn to be an arranger?

CW: Well, I learned by taking down arrangements I liked, arrangements for the Basie Band, for example. I just transcribed them. And then I also learned it from Peter Herbolzheimer. He really didn't teach me to do it this way or that way. He just said, "Do it, and then whenever we played it through, I heard what does and does not work. I think to this day that that's the best learning experience for any composer or arranger—to hear what you write.

Later on, when I then studied composition and arrangement at the University of Cologne, I was the only one in my class fortunate enough to actually hear my work. The others wrote their pieces and showed it to the teacher, who said "It's good or "It's not good, but there was no chance for the students to hear why it's good or not good. Whatever we wrote in composition and arrangement class, we never had a chance to actually listen to it being played. And that's what you need—you need to listen to how it sounds being played by the musicians. And I was lucky enough to have that opportunity. On the other hand, I wasn't really allowed to screw up! I always had to be careful when I tried out something new, because it was always for a professional, real life production. But my philosophy was always to write just what I knew musicians could play, and slowly tried something new, but always in ways I knew would be safe. So that's how I learned.

AAJ: Did you woodshed your work on the piano before you wrote it down?

CW: Yes, I would play it on the piano before I wrote it.

AAJ: At that time, and also today, which have been some of your own favorites among the big bands?

CW: Basie was one of the first big bands I really liked, and to this day it's still one of my favorites. It was from the period where they had composers/arrangers like Neil Hefti, Sam Nestico—late fifties, early sixties. The band sounded never better than then. But later I got into more contemporary big band writers. I'm a big fan of Bob Florence and Bill Holman and Bob McConnell, that's a Canadian band. And Bob Brookmeyer. Thad Jones.

AAJ: How about the swing bands: Les Elgart, the Dorseys, Benny Goodman? Did they influence you at all?

CW: Not that much. I started listening to jazz in the late seventies, and those bands were all gone by then. I discovered those bands later. After I discovered Basie and Ellington, I found the swing bands like Dorsey and Goodman. I liked them, but I was never such a big fan as I was of the Basie band. For me, the Dorsey Band, early Woody Herman, and Artie Shaw, were more like dance bands, and they served a certain purpose in my view, to play music more for dance than for listening. Not that I didn't respect it, but for me it was not so much listening music.

AAJ: I'm interested in social and historical issues, and if it's not being too inquisitive, I'd like to ask you the following. As you know, the recent generations in Germany have had to do a great deal of soul searching about the Nazi Era and the Holocaust. Can you tell us if that was a significant part of your own life, and whether you yourself needed to work out some of those issues of guilt, historical truth, social responsibility, and so on?

CW: Oh, definitely. I come from a fairly unique background, since my mother is from Switzerland, and my father is from Germany. On my mother's side, I'm actually part-Jewish, since my grandmother was half-Jewish. And my dad, even though he was born in 1933, and by the time the Nazi Era was over, he was twelve years old, he was very much influenced by those times. And he was pretty much what you would call a left winger in Germany, not really Communist, but a social democrat.

So I was raised in a very much politically conscious family. And from early on, my parents made me very aware of our German history. And I always felt that, even though I was born in 1966, Germany to this day has the inherited responsibility never to let something like the Holocaust happen again. Whenever I heard others talk as if, well, some day we'll have to forget it, I always objected and said that my opinion is that we shall never forget! That it will never happen again. And even when I see something like that going on anywhere in the world, I feel the Germans have a responsibility to object, even if it's elsewhere that another country is coming to something similar. That's also why, rightfully I think, Germany opted out of the Iraq war. Because of Germany's own past, they knew the dangers.

AAJ: It's so heartwarming to hear you have that position and for you to speak these words. I hope you'll continue during your life to take a strong stand. I think we all need to. In fact, in the jazz business as such, the racism that affected African Americans and the opposition to that played such an important part in jazz history. I feel that it's part of the music itself to stand up for humanity and equal rights.

CW: Oh, absolutely. And then, coming back to jazz during the Nazi times, when I was 16 or 17, I discovered German jazz history. A remote uncle of mine was a big jazz fan during the Nazi times. He told me fascinating stories about how he and his friends got together during the Nazi period and traded jazz records, all secretly, of course. How they rented a small boat, and took a gramophone out on the lake, and listened to jazz records! It was the only safe place for them to do it!

I read lots of books and followed the biographies of German jazz musicians in the Nazi years, and there was a jazz thing going on, just secretly. And that's also why in the fifties Germany had such a flourishing jazz scene, because after WWII, there was such a vacuum in Germany, and the American occupiers brought all this interesting music that the German people hadn't had a chance to listen to.

It opened up a lot of possibilities for German musicians after the Second World War. Jazz was so in demand, and there were very few people capable of playing that sort of music, so that a lot of my early idols like Peter Herbolzheimer, and other early German band leaders that I had the pleasure to work with, and I asked them about that time and they told me that it was like a Gold Rush in the early fifties for German jazz musicians. They worked constantly in American G.I. clubs, where they hired German jazz musicians. It was a flourishing time for them.

AAJ: I'm not sure about the precise time period, but Chet Baker was stationed in Germany.

CW: Chet Baker was stationed in Germany around the same time. And then it was also the time that a lot of American jazz musicians were drug addicts, and went to Europe for one or another reason—to get sober or run away from law enforcement or something. And a lot of them stayed in Europe and were coming in the fifties and sixties to Germany. People like Herb Geller, Bobby Burgess, and they became musicians in the radio big bands.

AAJ: Dexter Gordon....

CW: Dexter Gordon was in Paris for a long time.

AAJ: The European audiences were much more appreciative and enthusiastic about jazz than in the U.S. in fact.

CW: Yes. And jazz musicians who could only work in jazz clubs in the U.S. filled concert halls in Europe. It was a fascinating time. I researched it a lot, and I'm still researching it. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Adjusting to the Music Business in L.A.

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.

Chris WaldenAAJ: So your impetus for coming to the U.S. was to write for film.

CW: Yes.

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. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Composing, Arranging and Conducting for the Big Band

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 case—that'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 jazz—a 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 accident—but 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 instrumentation—four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, and rhythm—you 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.

Chris Walden

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. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

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"> 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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