According to a flyer called “Individuals” that Columbia Records included in all of their jazz albums circa 1978, Walt Bolden “paid his dues over the years as the drummer for some of the biggest names in jazz.” Oddly, the flyer never mentions any of these names. And then, as now, hardly anyone knew who Walt Bolden really was.
No mystery, then, why this particular album came and went without any notice in 1978.
Born Walter Lee Bolden in Hartford, Connecticut, on December 17, 1925, Bolden was the drummer in a local trio in Hartford when tenor great Stan Getz came through town one night in 1950, played with the band at the Sundown Club, and liked what he heard. The saxophonist took the trio on tour, and effectively launched the jazz career of Bolden and Horace Silver, the pianist in the trio.
Bolden recorded with Getz for the Roost label in 1950-1, and was a member of Gerry Mulligan's 10-piece band in 1951, and also worked with Howard McGhee, Horace Silver, Teddy Charles, George Shearing, Duke Jordan, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Henri Renaud, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, J. J. Johnson, Jackie McLean, and the vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, among others.
According to the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Bolden gave up performing in the early 60s until the mid 70s, but became the director of music for Project Create in Harlem between 1973-75, and also worked on the Jazzmobile.
By the time Bolden came back onto the scene in the mid seventies, jazz had changed considerably – but evidently he had not. The fledging Nemperor label, distributed at the time by CBS and whose biggest star was Return To Forever bassist Stanley Clarke, put out Bolden’s one and only solo LP.
Bolden went onto work with Billy Mitchell, Sam Most, Harold Mabern, Al Cohn, Junior Mance, Earl Coleman and Walter Bishop and toured with both Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross in the late nineties. Bolden then died of cancer on February 7, 2002.
For his one and only record, Bolden and co-producer and fellow drummer Grady Tate assembled a seemingly exemplary cast of musicians including George Coleman on tenor sax, Virgil Jones and Danny Moore on trumpet, Roland Prince on guitar and, most notably, pianist Harold Mabern (who had previously worked with Bolden on Frank Strozier’s 1976 Trident album Dance, Dance). The straight-ahead ensemble is fitted out with the little-known Wilbert Dyer on alto sax, Mario Rivera (who would join Coleman and Mabern on Coleman’s Big George) on baritone sax and (keyboardist?) Arthur Jenkins on percussion.
It’s a little overstaffed to be sure, particularly for one of the few straight-ahead jazz dates that appeared on a semi-major label in 1978. But it’s clear that the two drummer/producers (Tate does not participate in the music here) were testing the waters for an Art Blakey sort of hard-bop redux. (Speaking of waters, the cover pictures Bolden walking on water for some reason.) The goal is to seemingly update the Blue Note formula of the mid sixties, something the music had drifted far from at this point (Blue Note was as good as dead at the time). It’s not a bad idea. It’s just not all that necessary.
Bolden contributes four of the seven originals, with Dyer contributing two pieces (“Just For You,” “When Spring Comes Again”) and the resplendent Mabern contributing his lovely “I Remember Britt,” which Mabern first performed with Lee Morgan in 1970 and then, most movingly, with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander on 1998’s Heavy Hitters.
Starting off with “Red Snapper,” this is the sort of mid-sixties boogaloo throwback that could be found leading off any of the Lee Morgan or Hank Mobley records of the period. Coleman, Jones and Mabern all solo superbly over the rather unremarkable changes, but it just seems to hang in the balance before the rest of the album unspools.
Highlights include “Street Singer,” a post-bop update with Roland Prince’s rock-ish guitar suggesting new dimensions, had anyone cared to take this line of inquiry any further. “Deep in the Hat” serves up an appealing Bobby Timmons/Horace Silver funk-bop line with commanding solos by Coleman, Prince, Dyer and Mabern. Even the curious tick-tock arrangement of “I Remember Britt” (probably by the composer himself) doesn’t do much to undermine the melancholy wonder of this lovely tune. The rest of the program, though expertly helmed by the participants, is just ok. Nice, just not particularly notable.
As a drummer, Bolden proves his mettle with musical subtlety rather more specially than the bombast so many drummer/leaders feel compelled to express on their dates – particularly first dates. Bolden is all about supporting the melody, which may suggest why this was the only “leader” album Bolden was ever permitted. If drummers aren’t arsonists, they apparently don’t register.
It’s easy to be lulled into enjoying this album, particularly as it stands far afield of much of the smooth and fusion-y music coming out at the time. But in retroflection, this music stands the test of time far better than most of the other lauded jazz albums of the day. Indeed, one might even suggest that Bolden beat Wynton Marsalis to the punch in suggesting jazz’s past outweighed its present – and, which, of course, pretty much doomed its future.
Walt Bolden is good. It’s just a shame it’s not better.