Sunday, June 7, 2015

Free Flight [From the Archives]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to bassist James Lacefield during the early 1980s.

Although some of the early giants and creators of Jazz were still active, by and large, the 1980s was a time for new blood, electronic instruments and lots of fusion.

Mainly a straight-ahead guy myself, I dug the fusion, crossover thing if it was done well. After awhile, I even got on with electronic keyboards and synthesizers if they weren’t played in poor taste [overplayed; too loud; too frantic and frenetic, et al].

So when Jim Lacefield hipped me to Free Flight: A Jazz/Classical Union [Palo Alto Jazz Records 8024], an LP which came out in 1982 on which he played both acoustic and electric bass, I thought I’d keep an open mind about it and see if its music had any appeal.

Classical themes set to Jazz rhythms are always fun because they offer a fresh orientation to the composition of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Paganini and many others. What’s more, some of these Classical Music heavyweights were the Jazz improvisers of their time.

In addition to Jim Lacefield, Free Flight was made up of Milcho Leviev on piano and keyboards with whom I had worked on a number of occasions in alto saxophonist Fred Selden’s quartet and drummer Ralph Humphrey, whose playing I was familiar with dating back to the Don Ellis Big Band of the late 1960s [Fred and Milcho were on Don’s band with Ralph].

The only member of Free Flight I was not acquainted with was James Walker, but since he was the principal flutist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I figured with that pedigree, he could handle himself in a musical setting that professed to be “A Jazz/Classical Union.”

Given the theme of Free Flight: A Jazz/Classical Union and the musicians performing on it, I was predisposed to like its music and I wasn’t disappointed.

I liked it so much that I went out and purchased two of their subsequent recordings: Slice of Life [CBS-FMT 4415] and Beyond the Counds [Palo Alto Jazz Records 8075].

Mike Garson replaces Milcho on these recordings and lends his particular skills and style to Free Flight’s approach which had broadened considerably beyond its Classical Music orientation.

The real revelation for me on all of these Free Flight recordings was how effortlessly flutist James Walker seemed to take to Jazz improvising, an adaptation that often causes some difficulties for musicians who primarily perform Classical Music.

But the even bigger surprise was that the whole idea of Free Flight was Jim Walker’s idea in the first place!

I found this out 30 years after I first heard the group when a recent internet search led me to the background information about Jim and Free Flight contained in the following, two essays.

© -  James Walker, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Free Flight: Eclecticism without Compromise

“Founded in 1980 by flutist Jim Walker as a jazz outlet from his career as principal flutist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Free Flight has managed to turn jazz fans into classical buffs and classical audiences toward jazz.

From Bach to Beethoven to Miles Davis to the Beatles, their "eclecticism without compromise" can be heard not simply piece by piece, but within each composition, blending together flavors of classical, jazz, new age and rock music into a palatable whole.

Whatever legitimacy the label "Crossover" holds for their sound, in performance Free Flight always encourages the crossover of audiences' tastes no matter what the setting. Walker says Free Flight has always been "Performance-oriented, reaching people above and beyond the style of music played."

And the proof is, they have never had anything close to a "mediocre" reaction to any performance. A critic may have put it best: "If you can sit still while listening to Free Flight, you're either deaf or dead." Their ongoing success comes as much from their personalities as from technical brilliance, improvisational flair and compositional density.

Audiences know, Free Flight is Fun! The clairvoyant interplay between Jim & Mike Garson — who joined the group in 1982 and now composes most of their original music — flows down into the crowd, uplifting and always entertaining.
An evening of Free Flight may possess the cool side of jazz, the tranquillity of classical, as well as rock's drive, but make no mistake: Free Flight doesn't distance itself from it's listeners with these, its personalities draw people in.

Garson says the technology of the 90's has allowed the group to keep up with the contemporary production standards, while relying primarily on the sonority of the acoustic flute, piano, bass & percussion. Walker believes his concept of a flute-led jazz/classical ensemble has a strong appeal to a musician raised on jazz, but who found his profession in world-famous orchestras for 15 years.

Eight recordings plus appearances on the "Tonight Show", Lincoln Center, and the Hollywood Bowl have justified that appeal. Free Flight's recordings always hit the top of the charts and remain listening gems for years.

Their newest releases are "Free Flight 2000" and "The Best of Free Flight." These CDs capture Free Flight's "live/concert feeling" combining past favorites with exciting new compositions, a treasury of the best of their work. Other signature Free Flight albums include "Flight of the Dove" (which Jim recorded with Mike Garson) and "The Jazz-Classical Union."

Two recordings made in the late 1980's — "Illumination" and "Slice of Life" — may also be available in the near future. For more information about Free Flight — including a comprehensive selection of audio samples — please visit the website of Jim Walker, the group's founder at:

© -  Zan Stewart/Los Angeles Times, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Flutist Enjoys His Solo Jazz Flight - January 7, 1978

When Jim Walker walked out on the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he knew exactly what he was doing.

Walker, who had been with the Pittsburgh Symphony for eight years before joining the Philharmonic as co-principal flutist in 1977, wanted to focus his energies on studio work and the jazz/rock/classical fusion group Free Flight when he resigned his very lucrative post in August, 1984.
"After 15 years as a classical player, it was enough," Walker said. "In the beginning, I felt I was playing honest, wonderfully inspiring music. But after hundreds of repetitions, it wasn't so inspiring."

Instead of heading up a flute section, Walker, 42, discovered he wanted to be a soloist, as he is when he plays with Free Flight, which appears Sunday, on the Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, at the Mount Lowe Historical Museum in Altadena.

"I've found I have a soloist's instinct," he said, propping himself up on his couch in the music room of his Encino home.

"I do love to be heard and I've found that I want to play more than two-to-three minutes of solos during a two-hour concert. I like to be the guy who's really working out hard with two or three others. Plus, I like the challenge of improvising and playing with freshness and vitality."

Playing with a small band--Free Flight's other members are pianist Mike Garson, bassist Jim Lacefield and drummer Ralph Humphrey--and offering "contemporary crossover" sounds to predominantly youthful audiences gets a result that pleases Walker.

"I like the immediate involvement with an audience when you know that what's being put out is being actively, and enthusiastically received, which isn't always the case with a classical performance," he said. "I love those standing ovations. That's the bottom line for me. A check isn't that big a deal. I really thrive on that communication."

Though his recordings show Walker to be an exciting soloist, he thinks he still has some work to do before he'll feel completely at home as an improviser.

"I've always preached that 'the more you practiced and the better you got, the further you realized you had to go,' and I'm finding this to be true," he said. "I'm probably less satisfied in terms of how far I have to go, but I'm very happy that I'm working as a soloist."

Walker, who has a remarkable technical fluency, feels that if he has a weak point, it's that "I'm not as spontaneous as I'd like to be," he said. "A lot of times I'll play a lot of notes, when I should be playing less. So, my current campaign is to slow down.

"Technical playing can be a trap," he continued. "For someone with good facility, when you're under stress, the automatic reaction is to revert to wiggling your fingers and blowing faster and faster, as if to say, 'Well, at least something is coming out.' It's like a baseball player, when his swing goes off, to swing harder, because his timing is a little off.

"Basically, I want to put forth a buoyant, happy spirit from the stage, and I'm hoping that's what comes across to the listener, not some unbelievable coordination between four virtuosi. I want the audience to be uplifted, and the more I relax, the more that happens."

Walker--who describes Free Flight's music as alternately "high- energy new age, pop-jazz and classical adaptations"--calls himself an "American flute player." "I'm one of those guys that grew up exposed to a lot of different musics, and if I spent enough time playing them, they'd become part of my style."

Along with elements of jazz, pop, rock and the classics, Walker's style also prominently spotlights "the classical sound of the flute," he said. "A close listen will tell you I've had classical training. That's my strong suit, making a warm sound and playing warm melodies on the flute."

Though the major portion of his career has been in classical situations, Walker grew up "in an area of Kentucky where there wasn't an orchestra nearby and my parents didn't have a lot of classical music around," he said. "I was really raised hearing the great standards, like 'Stella By Starlight' and 'Stardust.' It was only later, when I was at music camps, that I found I had an attraction for classical music."
Although Walker has not appeared with a major symphony since he left the Philharmonic, he has not abandoned the classical realm. He makes occasional festival appearances, as at Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Ore., and Music From Angel Fire, near Taos, N. M.

While he makes the bulk of his living in the studios, playing on scores such as the recent NBC miniseries, "A Year in the Life," Walker says his heart is with Free Flight, which presently tours about two-to-three months a year and whose most recent LP is "Illumination"(CBS). "This music comes closer to the type of music I like to make and listen to than anything I've done so far."

The following video features Free Flight performing Bach’s Groove - Milcho Leviev’s arrangement and adaptation of J.S. Bach’s Badineire from Orchestral Suite #12.

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