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JAZZ REVIEW

A well-tailored ensemble

Chris Walden brings Grammy- nominated big band to Catalina Bar & Grill.

January 12, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

THE big band has been the symphony orchestra of jazz and popular music since the early years of the 20th century. Although its preeminence was powerfully challenged by rock music in the '50s and '60s, the big band's combination of brass, saxophones and rhythm (occasionally supplemented with a string section) continues to attract the attention of composer-arrangers looking for new and appealing textures in its instrumentation.

One of the more intriguing is Chris Walden. The German-born Walden has been a successful film and television composer in the U.S. for more than a decade and has led his own big band since the late '90s. Walden, whose latest big band recording, "Home of My Heart," is nominated for two Grammys this year, brought the Chris Walden Big Band to Catalina Bar & Grill to play selections from the CD, enhancing the program with the delightful presence of singer Tierney Sutton.

The band opened the set with a superb trifecta of John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" and the standards "Here's That Rainy Day" and "Cherokee." Walden's arranging style juxtaposes the trumpet, trombone and sax sections in an engaging merger of traditional writing and a more personal approach combining lush, intersectional sounds woven with closely moving inner harmonies. The aural effect, especially on ballads such as "Here's That Rainy Day," was striking -- a blend of warm and piquant emotional layering.

On these tunes as well as other set highlights, such as Walden's hard-driving take on John Williams' "Star Wars" themes, the ensemble passages often broke out into primo solo passages, with especially fine contributions from alto saxophonists Jeff Driskill and Kim Richmond, tenor saxophonists Brandon Fields and Rob Lockart, and trumpeter Kye Palmer.

Despite a mix that masked the full resonance of her lovely sound, Sutton sang warmly on "People Will Say We're in Love" and with high-spirited, up-tempo enthusiasm on "Donna Lee." Some singers sing in front of bands; Sutton -- whose Grammy-nominated album is appropriately titled "I'm With the Band" -- is a musician first, her vocals an integral element in the captivating sound of Walden's fine ensemble.

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