It's hard to wrap one's arms around this CD by composer/arranger Chris Walden. On the one hand, Walden has coupled his intrepid ensemble of talented southern California sidemen with the 100-member St. John's Choir from Hamburg, Germany (his hometown), to set to music works by the renowned Swiss poet/lyricist Kurt Marti. On the other, the playing time is only 36:55?less than half a disc's worth?and that includes a five-minutes-plus "bonus" track, the late Michael Brecker's "Slings and Arrows."
Setting that aside, and focusing instead on Walden's musical blueprint, one must profess that the twelve-part "Kurt Marti Suite" is beautifully written and adeptly articulated. But it's not jazz, and hardly secular either, as Marti?at least in the poems excerpted by Walden?composed religious themes with titles such as "Catechism Questions," "Hotel Jesus," "Easter Morning," "Sing Praises," "Supplications," "Sermon in Distress" and "Protestant Church Music." Which is unsurprising, as Marti (b. 1921) served as a priest in his native country until 1983.
The choir, as envisaged, is in the forefront on each of the selections in the suite as Walden's band performs admirably in its backup role, even swinging whenever that option is presented. Walden has earmarked space for a handful of concise solos, and the breathing room is used to good advantage by saxophonists Brandon Fields and Jeff Driskill, trombonist Bob McChesney and flugelhornist Ron King.
If the ensemble feels constrained by the imperatives of the suite, that is clearly not the case on "Slings and Arrows," an adventurous departure from the norm that swings hard behind ardent solos by tenor saxophonist Fields, guitarist Mitch Holder and drummer Dick Weller. For big band enthusiasts, that may be too little too late, and it would be hard to recommend the album to them on that basis. Its rewards lie elsewhere, in a realm that one might christen "sacred music with a touch of jazz." With that definition in mind, it can be earnestly endorsed.