Before appraising the music on saxophonist Donald Walden's new album, Focus, we should first consider the "truth in advertising" issue. Webster's defines an orchestra as "a group of instrumentalists including especially string players [emphasis mine] organized to perform ensemble music." Walden's "orchestra" has no strings attached, and in fact is actually an octet. That's correct, a leader and seven sidemen "organized to perform ensemble music." So caveat emptor. (In other words, don't be misled by the label; an orchestra it ain't.)
Aside from that inaccuracy, Focus is a generally admirable session wherein Walden and his colleagues perform in concert the music of legendary bop pianist Tadd Dameron, which encompasses a number of the most notable melodies in the annals of jazz. It's always a pleasure to hear again such classics of the idiom as "Half Nelson," "Lady Bird," "If You Could See Me Now," "The Scene Is Clean" and "Our Delight," capably interpreted by musicians from a hotbed of jazz, and especially bop, that has served as a breeding ground for so many remarkable players over the years.
Walden is an articulate soloist, as are the other front-liners, each of whom is given a number of chances to shine, and the rhythm section, comprised of pianist Kenn Cox, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Bert Myrick, is sharp and supple. Walden is especially persuasive on "If You Could See Me Now," "Double Talk" and "Our Delight."
Dameron, whose career was crippled by drug use and who died in 1965, a month after his forty-eighth birthday, would no doubt be pleased to know that his music lives on, and to hear it performed so agreeably by a new generation of musicians. If you overlooked Dameron the first time around, Focus presents a splendid introduction his music, which remains uncommonly fresh and relevant after the passage of more than half a century.
Track Listing: Boperation; The Tadd Walk; Focus; Half Nelson / Lady Bird; If You Could See Me Now; Mating Call; Double Talk; A Bebop Carol; The Scene Is Clean; Our Delight (76:27).