Chris Walden is one of the top big band composers in the world. Walden has composed, arranged, and scored music for countless famous stars, movies, and TV shows. He only recently got around to putting his own music out — his first major album in seven years — with a few of his musician friends, L.A.’s top-notch session players, six outstanding vocalists, and special guest star Arturo Sandoval.
Full-On! came out September 16 on Origin Records, showing the five-time-Grammy-nominated, German composer’s love of and ease around big band jazz. His 18-piece big band is comprised of colleagues Walden’s worked with on many other projects. Putting this album together was a breeze to hear him tell it. One of his proudest moments was completing 10 tracks in one day, almost the entire album.
“The musicians in my big band have been with me now for 15 years, and as much as I can, I also use them when I do recordings for other artists, so in that sense we work together a lot, also outside my own big band,” Walden said, last week. “It was like any other day ‘at the office’ since I work with them all the time on different projects, with the only difference that after seven years, we got to record our own project again.”
The tracks themselves offer surprising variety, from traditional, brassy big band sounds of the past (“Bailout”) to a Christopher Cross pop cover (“Ride Like The Wind”), to a handful of original tracks, including “Bailout” and “Arturo,” written just for Walden’s friend Sandoval.
Throughout the album, Walden shows off a talent for matching the right music with the right vocalist or the right musical vibe — not too much here, never stepping over any instrumentalist’s toes. In “Arturo,” the big band plays in an intimate, straight-ahead atmosphere of superlative give-and-takes — never once hinting at the 18-piece powerhouse behind the magic. Each featured musician takes his solo to the limit. Tenor saxophonist Brandon Fields curves around every lyrical crescendo before signaling tremendously focused and in-depth big band backbeat — bassist Kenny Wild traveling over the horn section, maintaining the straight-ahead luster. Sandoval, here on his flugelhorn, shows why he’s the master of the warm, tight tones that seem to disappear into the atmosphere.
The big band takes on Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” with vocalist Melanie Taylor, without trying too hard. They go over the familiar pop-R&B notes nice and easy; no reinvention here. Instead, Walden chooses to pull out a big band warmth already existent in Wonder’s original, while pulling back on the R&B groove. For that, they leave it to Taylor’s incandescent vocal narrative, which she appropriates easy and carefree.
“Bada Bamba” is Walden’s attempt at trying Latin big band samba. Bass trombonist Bill Reichenbach and flutist Jeff Driskill level a horn section that comes and goes with power punches, breaking up what could become an easy-listening monotony. The song’s life is in the horn section’s flourishes, not the soloists holding the line.
Tom Jones’ “If I Only Knew” packed more of a contemporary punch, thanks to vocalist Dorian Holley (Michael Jackson’s Bad World Tour), who borders on busting out with an R&B scat-rap-easy. He curls his lyrics so cleverly, snatching a big band punctuation from the jaws of nostalgic defeat.
Everyone’s heard of multiple-Grammy nominee Tierney Sutton. But listening to “Only The Lonely” on Walden’s big band album reinforces her status as one of America’s finest jazz vocalists. She uses the lyrics, the spare rhythms of a piano and some sad, fainting horns, and the spaces in between to recreate her own refrain — not a note out of place, even when dwelling on one or two for good measure. Much more nuanced than Frank Sinatra.
Courtney Fortune’s “Lost In The Memory” is a revelation. The Seattle vocalist is too, for Walden, who discovered her. In this original song she wrote with the bandleader — originally from her 2009 Speak Love album produced by Walden — she almost overshadows the big band. Her heady tonal phonography traces the lines of Rob Lockart’s tenor sax accompaniment, a moody, swelling force of nature, and definitely a highlight.
Walden’s original composition, “Gatsby,” is in there, written for an A&E TV movie. Although romantic in nature, the crawling pace of a fading picture of horns leaves a generic impression. Trombonist Alex Iles and bassist Kenny Wild (Seawind) are featured here, but they can’t do much to raise the music above mild-mannered, albeit intensive, smooth jazz. Although Wild’s stacked and languidly stepping solo do measure up in a straight-ahead sense — minus the big band.
Not all of the vocals are that pitch-perfect. But they appear on this record for the feel more than the polished technique, responding more to the big band’s sweeping, punchy movements than their own personal inclinations or Walden’s professional clinic.