by Piotr Michalowski
Donald Walden may not want to be reminded that he has been playing the saxophone for almost half a century, but there is no other way that one can attain the musical depth he demonstrates every time he takes the stage. Some years ago I heard him in Detroit with Teddy Edwards, one of the masters of bop tenor saxophone, who was then seventy but was playing better than ever. That night both of them gave a demonstration of amazing artistry, grounded in experienced imagination and virtuoso instrumental technique, but the one impression that sticks in the mind after all these years is the magisterial tone of their horns. You can play fast and learn all the harmonic tricks in the world, but it takes time, patience, and imagination to develop a great tone on the tenor, and Walden has one of the best around. He obtains a full, burnished sound, a cry with tinges of a human voice. Walden was more than a match for Edwards that night, but when he came off the stand, he smiled and in his typically generous understated fashion admitted that the old man was making him work. This came as no surprise, for he is not only a master improviser but also a man in love with the jazz tradition and its pioneers. He is dedicated to preserving it and passing it on to the next generation.
Walden was raised in Detroit. He studied with pianist Barry Harris, who had developed his own way of teaching improvisation and was one of the first to formalize the analysis and study of modern jazz harmony. He also learned from Yusef Lateef, another student of Harris; and like many others of his generation, Walden honed his craft at the Larry Teal School of Music. He spent much of the 1960s in New York, and after coming back to Detroit, he managed to make a living working for Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, and
other popular acts. This was a bad time for jazz, but Walden persevered and became one of the most important members of the Detroit jazz scene as a player, and as an inspiration and teacher to generations of young musicians.
Walden is now a professor at the U-M music school, but this has not led him to abandon the jazz life. Quite the opposite: after some recent health problems, he is ever the more determined to push himself and his art. In an inspired move, he formed a new sextet, made up of some of the best jazz players in his city, and named it the Free Radicals (with Dwight Adams, Cassius Richmond, Rick Roe, Marion Hayden, and Andre Wright). The repertoire is a mixture of classic, but not overplayed, modern jazz compositions and of originals by members of the band. Most important, they have a group sound that does not strive to imitate; the style is bop, but it reaches out into freer realms. These established musicians have created something fresh and new, and they present it on Saturday, October 28, at Kerrytown Concert House.
[Review published October 2006]