When Chris Walden was growing up in Germany, his mother, a choir singer, would often rehearse at home. Thus, musicians were always around. And where there are musicians, there are instruments. That is where the future Grammy-nominated composer, ar-ranger and performer first laid eyes on his future. The natural reaction in most children is to reject their parents’ interests. But from the moment he saw those old trombones and dulcimers in his living room, Walden was begging their owners to let him try them out. As he reached his teens, however, Walden did move away from what his mom wanted him to play.
“I did not want to do Baroque or Renaissance music,” he says. “My rebellion was doing jazz.”
So as he entered maturity, Walden ditched his piano lessons and picked up a trumpet. Almost three decades later, the 39-year-old makes his living as a jazz musician. Well, actually, that’s not entirely accurate: He makes his living composing film scores and arranging music for other artists. But by doing so, he’s able to fund his jazz career. Much of what he makes scoring movies and TV shows and putting together instrumentals for the likes of Elvis Costello and, yes, David Hasselhoff, goes straight into his big band, which just put out its second album, the boldly titled No Bounds, and is appearing at the Gardens of the World in Thousand Oaks on July 23. So, in essence, Walden is working a day job in order to finance his hobby. The only difference between him and a kid in a garage band doing the same thing is Walden loves doing both. “I put just as much heart into writing for other artists and for film scores as my own stuff,” he insists. “The difference is if I do my own stuff, I have more creative freedom.”
Walden has been creatively autonomous for a long time now. He came up with his own songs from age 8. Not long after discovering jazz through Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie records, he began writing arrangements for his high school big band. And by the time he hit his 20s, he was landing gigs at radio stations, arranging for their in-house ensembles. “In the mid-’80s,” Walden explains, “every major city in Germany had a fully employed radio big band. They needed arrangements, so I had a chance to be a staff arranger.” Obviously, Walden was good at his job — too good, maybe. Because before he even turned 30, he had already exhausted his options. He’d gone to work in the German film industry, but the studios’ aesthetic clashed with his own. “Big music with big emotions was not really in big demand in Germany,” he says. “They wanted minimalist music and they did not want it to show much emotion. I wanted to do the opposite: big, lush scores with a lot of emotion. So I said, ‘Screw you, I’m going to Hollywood.’ ”
Walden moved to California in 1996, the home of many of his childhood musical idols. He quickly leapt into the entertainment industry, writing advertising jingles, commercial themes and scores for short and feature-length films, including the upcoming independent thriller The Pet. Then, in 1999, he formed the Chris Walden Big Band, bringing together 17 top-notch session musicians to perform both his originals and his reworked versions of recognizable classics. On 2005’s Home of My Heart, Walden took the immortal Star Wars theme and recast it as a classic, bopping big-band anthem. With the recently released No Bounds, he does the same to several famous Disney tunes, including “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “When You Wish Upon a Star” and even the song that plays through every parent’s nightmares after a trip to Disneyland, “It’s A Small World After All.”
“I have two little kids … who love watching Disney movies. They’re not watching them once: They’re watching them 57 times,” Walden explains. “As a parent hearing those songs over and over again, playing them was the only way to overcome them and get it out of my head.”
As for his own material, Walden isn’t interested in living in the past, but rather in pushing what many consider to be an antiquated art form into the future, experimenting with new instrumentation and unorthodox arrangements. The album isn’t called No Bounds for nothing, after all. But isn’t being a composer a bit anonymous? For someone with such grand, sweeping vision, it would seem counterproductive to want to stay in the wings, conducting from the shadows. Isn’t it something of a thankless job?
“I never wanted to be a star. That’s why I like this,” he says. “The music is the frontman, not myself.”