One doesn't often hear a big band album in which the arrangements literally steal the show. Here's one where they do. Make no mistake, German-born composer/arranger Chris Walden has mustered a world-class ensemble for his debut album, abundantly equipped with staunch team players and killer soloists; even so, it is his superlative charts that carry the day and earn the blue ribbon.
Simply put, Walden is a terrific arranger who readily enlivens themes by composers as diverse as Ray Noble and Oliver Nelson, Charlie Haden and Astor Piazzolla, Dave Grusin and John Williams, the Gershwin brothers, Christopher Cross, and Rodgers and Hart. He's also a splendid composer, as his "Home of My Heart" and three-part Film Noir suite confirm. Walden, not yet forty years old, honed his skills with Germany's Frankfurt Radio and RIAS big bands before relocating to Los Angeles nine years ago, and since then he has scored more than thirty feature and television films and written arrangements for dozens of artists including Nancy Wilson, Barbra Streisand, Bill Conti, and even the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The evocative Film Noir is preceded by stylish arrangements of Noble's venerable "Cherokee" and Cross's picturesque "Rainy Day in Vancouver," after which Grusin's powerful "Mulholland Falls" and Haden's dreamy "Here's Looking at You" lead to a perky treatment of Williams' dramatic theme from Star Wars. Walden takes his only flugel solo on "Home of My Heart," while pianist Alan Steinberger is showcased on Lyle Mays' "Feet First" and trombonist Bob McChesney on another marvelous chart, Johnny Burke/Jimmy van Heusen's "Here's That Rainy Day."
The always engaging Tierney Sutton has the session's lone vocal, on the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On," which precedes Piazzolla's rhythmic tango, "Nonino," with solo by accordionist Frank Marocco. Walden wraps things up with Rodgers and Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me," Nelson's "Stolen Moments" and the brief and unruly "Dr. Stefan Frank" by Peter Wagner and Andy Sedlmayer. Trombonist Alex Iles, trumpeter Bobby Shew and alto Brian Scanlon are featured, respectively, on Parts I, II and III of Film Noir, soprano Bob Sheppard on "Vancouver," flugel Ron King on "Mulholland Falls," tenor Rob Lockart on "Here's Looking at You" and "You Took Advantage of Me." The other blue-chip soloists include tenors Pete Christlieb, Brandon Fields and Rick Keller; alto Jeff Driskill, trumpeter Kye Palmer, guitarist Mitch Holder and drummer Peter Erskine.
Home of My Heart was recorded at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, and one has to get used to its "empty barn" ambiance, which is most conspicuous on "Cherokee." Aside from that, there's nothing unflattering one can say about an album that is so marvelously written and impressively performed (with a 77:37 playing time to boot). As film critics Ebert and Roeper would say, a big thumbs-up.