At the age of 29, Chris Walden came to Hollywood to write music for the movies, but he's gained almost as much attention with his talent-packed big band, winning fans like film composer John Williams and jazz pianist John Grusin.
The German-born trumpeter and composer moved to California in the mid-1990s, looking to find work on big-budget Hollywood productions after establishing himself as one of the top young writers on Germany's relatively small film scene.
He arrived in town with only one connection, and when he came calling, the television producer asked him to score a few scenes for a project that was already completed, just to see the quality of his work.
"I scored the whole movie knowing he didn't need the music, and that impressed him," Walden said. "That was my first break. Unfortunately, he went out of business after I did two projects for him, and for a long stretch I didn't get any work, so I decided to start the big band."
The Chris Walden Big Band's 2005 debut "Home of My Heart" (Origin) garnered two Grammy nominations, for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album and Best Instrumental Arrangement. He brings the orchestra to Dizzy's Sunday with special guest Tierney Sutton, one of jazz's most stylish singers.
Stocked with top-shelf L.A. session musicians, including reed players Kim Richmond and Tom Peterson, trumpeter Wayne Bergeron and trombonists Bob McChesney and Andy Martin, the band releases its sophomore Origin CD, "No Bounds," July 18.
Walden cites veteran bandleader-arrangers Bill Holman and Bob Florence as two primary influences ("I love Holman's use of unison lines and counterpoint, and Florence is a master of rhythm and vivid, colorful writing"). The new album showcases Walden's versatility and sense of drama, with imaginative charts of familiar jazz fare such as Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," and "Some Day My Prince Will Come," and improbable material like "It's a Small World."
"I like to take on these challenges that no one would think of," Walden said. "I like to surprise. It does have to have something I can reharmonize in an interesting way, but wherever there's a decent melody, you can do almost anything."
One of the album's highlights is Sutton's effortlessly swinging rendition of "People Will Say We're in Love," a track that showcases wit and subtly. For Sunday's performance, Walden will also be featuring her on the bebop classic "Donna Lee" and "Only the Lonely," a tune she covered on her sensational 2004 tribute to Frank Sinatra, "Dancing in the Dark" (Telarc).
Ol' Blue Eyes and his great arrangers have figured prominently in Walden's imagination lately as he wrote all the charts for "Bolton Sings Sinatra," an album of standards by belter Michael Bolton, a vocalist who in many ways is the antithesis of Sutton. Big bands of course don't pay the bills (they're notorious for generating a negative cash flow).
Walden has thrived by writing arrangements and orchestrations for a myriad of pop and jazz artists ñ Diana Krall, Sheryl Crow, Nancy Wilson, Gladys Knight. He's also forged ahead in Hollywood, writing scores for more than 30 feature and TV films, including the CBS miniseries "Blonde" and the Hallmark movie "The Last Cowboy." Walden's two musical worlds often flow into each other, but he's found his biggest source of inspiration in his musicians, crack session players eager to cut loose and improvise.
"My movie writing is influenced by my big-band work, and my big-band work influences my movie writing," Walden said. "But working with these great players has really allowed me to stretch. They're phenomenal musicians, and there's so much exploring we can do. I can push the envelope, but I always want to make sure they're having fun."