By Tad Hendrickson
Jazz has had its fair share of players who have put their careers on hold to do some woodshedding. The most well-known example is probably Sonny Rollins' 1959-61 sabbatical where he studied philosophy and yoga, traveled and (most famously) practiced on New York's Williamsburg Bridge at night. Oftentimes, these searching musicians return to their art with new vigor and, hopefully, an artistic breakthrough. Such is the case for saxophonist Myron Walden, who hasn't released an album since 2005.
Speaking on the telephone with Walden from his Harlem practice studio, you get the sense that he has spent his downtime well: There is a thoughtful calm or inner peace to his voice and a clarity of thinking that comes when a person takes the time to work through some stuff.
I think of myself as being something of a recluse," says Walden when asked about his time away. I was an only child; I'm very comfortable being alone with my thoughts. Not that I have conversations with myself, but I reflect on what I'm doing or what other people have done, thinking, 'Why have I been so moved by this? Or what is so moving about this particular section of a song?'"
Fans will be able to make their own decisions about Walden's music once again as three very different albums are released in the next few months, nearly doubling his album count as a leader. The first is 'Momentum,' a quintet recording inspired by the music of Miles Davis' mid-'60s quintet. The second is 'In This Life,' which has a meditative feel to it. And perhaps an antidote to the second album is 'Countryfied,' which is something of a party album featuring saxophone, B3 organ and drums.
According to Walden, A lot of people wanted me to put out one record, then another a year later, or whatever. And I thought, 'Well, I'm here now. I don't know where I'll be in six months.' I want to, as this music comes to me, present it to the world. I'm recording this music pretty much as I'm putting it out."
The first thing that will jump out at fans familiar with the saxophonist's past work is that he is playing a lot of tenor saxophone rather than his usual alto. He's quick to point out that he isn't switching but simply including the new horn. I'm trying to get to a place where the tempo and the style of the instrument blend; I had to go lower to the tenor," he explains. The bore of the saxophone and the way it moves, the tenor vibrates in a certain way. It's same as someone's voice. Sometimes you hear someone in a meaty lower register and you just want to say, 'Go ahead, talk.'"
This is particularly effective on the slower quiet pieces of 'In This World.' The timbre of alto would have sounded too brittle for the warm, quiet vibe that emerges on these pieces, which have extended notes and an almost New Age music sense of stillness. It's music that seems wholly reflective of Walden's time away in his practice space alone with his thoughts.
For Walden, it's all about the true essence of sound and how to get the music to reflect the human condition, whether it's a mood, a scream, or even a yawn. Part of that happens through practice and part of it happens by contemplation. The contemplation is the most obvious touchstone on the album, but you can't discount the effort that it took for Walden to switch to tenor to get the vibe just right -- one simply can't pick up the saxophone and play it at the highest caliber even if the music is slower.
If someone tells you that learning a instrument was easy, then it's hard for me to believe that they are playing," he points out. I was able to pick it up and play it right away. I could blow. But as I went deeper I fell into a hole and I was like, 'Oh, my God.' If it was easy, everyone would be able to do what Trane did."
From a more concrete musical perspective, the shift to tenor was also inspired by the music Miles Davis' '60s quintet created once Wayne Shorter joined on sax. Shorter's elliptical style punctuated by sharp angles and bold blasts resonated with Walden's own style. According to Walden, it was Shorter on tenor that made him rethink the quintet sound, realizing that the tenor's range worked better with the hard tone of a trumpet in counterpoint to saxophone. Many of the album's tunes had formerly been played in a small band with Walden on alto, but they just never quite worked to his satisfaction until he tried them on tenor.
Furthest off in the distance is 'Countryfied.' If 'Momentum' is about the sound of the horn, and 'World' is about a more contemplative mindset, this album is about the body, filled with deep grooves, lyrical balladry and energy. As a counter to all the thinking that was going on in his studio, Walden felt the need to simply feel and experience. I was really trying to embrace music on a fundamental everyday enjoying yourself kind of way," he explains. I didn't want anything complicated. There is something in the fundamental unified and sonic playing that allows one to just move. I'm not knocking it, but the chords are moving every two beats on 'Giant Steps.'"
Regardless of the premise, it's all about experience and emotion, effectively conveying ideas. The ideas may be different from album to album, but the communication pathways are always there in Walden's music. Thanks to some creative soul searching, he's just doing more of it now than ever.
Here's what our friends at All About Jazz are up to this week:
Portico Quartet: Not Particularly a Jazz Band
Ed Palermo: We're Only In It for the Music
Manfred Schoof, 'Resonance'
Roni Ben-Hur, 'Fortuna'
Bla Fleck, 'Throw Down Your Heart'
King Crimson, 'In the Court of the Crimson King' (40th Anniversary Series)
All About Jazz imports 22,000 photos into its gallery