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Donald Walden

"Part of my mission is to carry on the legacy of jazz musicians that made great music. Most of them died prematurely and never achieved the kind of success they deserved. Their legacy needs to be remembered," says saxophonist Donald Walden when asked why he recorded Focus The Music of Tadd Dameron.

With new members of the Detroit Jazz Orchestra (DJO), a group Walden formed in 1982, he recorded the disc live at Bert’s On Broadway, a tri-level bar in downtown Detroit. Walden selected 10 of Dameron’s signature compositions.

For two nights, the DJO played like each member had taken an independent study course with Dameron. Moreover, they performed under pressure. Kinks in the new arrangements had to be fix in front of the audience. This didn’t frustrate them, or cause the orchestra to lose any momentum.

Walden admits he was reluctant initially to make the recording.

"I really didn’t want to do this recording. I thought that it would be difficult to record Dameron’s music live with a group of musicians that don’t play his tunes regularly." Walden remembers the executive producer of Focus, Cornelius Pitts insisting that he do this recording.

"Cornelius believed if Dameron’s music was presented in the proper context it would catch on. That was his thinking and he’s no dummy. He’s a pretty smart guy. After I got into the project I was glad I decided to do it."

Walden is quick to credit others. He dislikes talking about himself, but he enjoys bragging about the musicians in his orchestra.

For those unfamiliar with Walden, at age 65, he blows the roof off any jazz club. He never uses wild circus tricks to capture his audience. At times, his energy level becomes so elevated he can cause a tornado to swirl from his horn. He can be either unpretentious or rambunctious a la saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Gene Ammons. Focus is Walden’s third recording. In 1992, he released A Portrait of You and 5 years later A Monk and A Mingus Among Us, a tribute to Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus.

Walden grew up in Detroit. Hearing saxophonist Lucky Thompson solo on a Dizzy Gillespie’s album made Walden want to become a jazz musician.

"Jazz music spoke to me more than anything that I had experienced musically," he recalls.

At age 16, he started playing the saxophone. As a student at Chadsey High School he co-founded a band with trumpeter Lonnie Hilyer and drummer Roy Brooks. After school, he studied with pianist Barry Harris. Harris taught Walden bebop.

Walden cannot recall the first time he heard Tadd Dameron. But he remembers being enthralled by the melodic structure of Hot House. According to Walden, Dameron bridged the divide between swing and bebop by using bebop harmonies in his big band arrangements.

"Tadd has a lot of great music that should be heard and played. All of his compositions are creative and clever. He wasn’t a great soloist per se. He was more of an arranger type of pianist. If you look back at all the beautiful music that he wrote, you would see his talent was composing."

Besides revamping 10 of Dameron’s compositions Walden wanted to show-off the new members of the DJO. The new membership is diverse.

"The younger cats on this recording are steep in the bebop tradition". Walden is referring to Dwight Adams, Vincent Chandler, Cassius Richmond, and Rodney Whitaker.

"They may not have the years, but they have the dedication. In general, Their concept of playing is like they were present when bebop was being made in the 40’s and 50’s."

Each played imaginatively. Especially, trumpeter Dwight Adams onDouble Talk and Bebop Carroll, he almost blew the bell off his trumpet. He played like he was attempting to awaken the spirit of Fats Navarro.

Alto saxophonist Cassius Richmond wrote the arrangement for Boperation, Focus, , Double Talk, and The Scene Is Clean. Richmond modernized those compositions.

"Cassius is really a gifted musician with extraordinary writing skills. The stuff that he wrote for this album you wouldn’t believe that a cat his age could make these tunes sound so authentic," Walden says. The notes that Rodney Whitaker played on Bebop Carrollslid off the strings of his bass, and formed puddles around his feet. Whitaker has an impressive track record. He is an original member of the DJO, and he is the bassist for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

"Rodney was a given for this recording. He ‘s such a super bass player, and he has improved more than any musician that has been around during the decade of the 90’s up into the present,"

This recording was trombonist Vincent Chandler’s first exposure to Dameron’s music. But you couldn’t tell it. Chandler studied at the Thelonious Monk Institute, and he toured briefly with the late saxophonist Joe Henderson. Chandler was chewing up the changes to Richmond’s arrangements like they were cereal.

Walden didn’t rely solely on the young guns. He enlisted three veterans, Bert Myrick, Ernie Rogers, and Kenny Cox

Myrick is a pure bebop drummer, who normally plays with a trio, but he adjusted his style to fit the demands of this project.

" Nobody else could have played this music the way that Bert did given the fact that he’s more of a trio drummer," Walden contends. "No other drummer in Detroit could have given this project more life." The other musicians blocked the audience view of pianist Kenny Cox. They only saw his right hand racing across the keys like it was separated from his wrist.

"Kenny hasn’t received the exposure that he deserves." Walden says. " I want people to hear him. He is a piano player that is the link between Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris and all the piano players that came before him."

Saxophonist Ernie Rogers’ is known as a great big band "section player". Walden lent his baritone sax to Rogers. "I forgot to pour all the good stuff out of it," Walden says jokingly. Rogers can make the baritone sax sound crisp instead of hefty.

Walden feels the musicians that he assembled forFocus preserved Dameron’s legacy. " All the musicians were a such a joy to play with. They were so cooperative, and everybody did their best. We should have done this recording a long time ago,"

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Donald Walden
  • Subtitle: Boperation....Donald Walden and Detroit Jazz Orchestra revamps bebop classics
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