Mary Desmond | Staff Writer
Jim Walker has played the flute in more than 750 motion pictures. He spent eight years as the principal flutist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But, he enjoys himself most when he’s onstage with his golden Burkart flute, dazzling an audience alongside his band, Free Flight.
“Free Flight is still by far the most fun thing I ever did,” Walker said.
“You’ll see me smiling all night, because I truly love the music we play, and I love the connection we inevitably get with an audience.”
Tonight, Walker and Free Flight will take over the Amphitheater stage at 8:15 p.m. and delight the audience with a setlist that draws inspiration from classical works, jazz numbers and pop hits from the past 80 years.
The band, born in 1980 and led by Walker, is composed of Mike Garson at the piano, Andrew Boyle on drums and Nathan Light playing bass.
Walker was raised on jazz music. His father was his band director and a jazz clarinet aficionado, he said. After Walker began playing flute at age 10, his father would bring him along to jazz shows where he first got his taste for improvisation. As he grew older, he continued his musical education at the University of Louisville, but he left his first love, jazz, behind.
“I began to think I wasn’t all that good in jazz or acoustic. I took a left turn and went straight for the classical flute for about 12 years,” Walker said.
Though doubts stymied Walker’s early jazz career, his classical training and playing propelled him to the highest echelons of the classical music world. After college, he received a position in the United States Military Academy Band at West Point. At 25, he won the associate principal position in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In 1977, he became the principal flutist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In L.A., Walker began his career working in motion pictures and reacquainted himself with an old friend: jazz music.
“I started rediscovering the unfulfilled chapter of jazz in my life and started practicing actually, practicing learning to improvise,” Walker said.
Playing with Free Flight is radically different from orchestral performing, Walker said. During his 15 years in major orchestras, he was one of about 100 musicians working together to bring the classics of the masters to life. If he had a solo during a performance, it lasted about three and four minutes.
“If you shift over to Free Flight, I’m basically in the spotlight the whole time — it’s basically me and the pianist,” he said.
When it comes to Free Flight, Walker is his own boss. He controls the repertoire, and he creates the performance and atmosphere he desires. The band gives him freedom to improvise and develop new, original music.
“I wanted to have a group that would both be viable classically and from a pop standpoint,” he said. “The programming goal is always to have a lot of variety in mood, volume and tempo.”
About one-third of the band’s performance will include classically derived music, and another third will include originals, both high energy jazz numbers and acoustic ballads. The final third will be filled with standard contemporary pieces including some recognizable Beatles songs and hits from Broadway, Walker said.
“We always close with a tribute to George Gershwin, and it’s a real tour de force from a musical standpoint. We usually include at least 15 pieces from George Gershwin,” he said.
Every Free Flight concert contains spontaneous improvisations. Walker and Garson, the pianist, have been creating music together for three decades. That familiarity allows them to push borders and still trust each other to follow or lead the music in different, but beautiful directions. The group as a whole relies on the exciting energy created by musical interplay, Walker said.
“The pianist and I, we’ve been collaborating for 30 years, so we’re true musical brothers, and we always are very, very good at reading each other and going where the other person is going to go. And a lot of times, it feels like you’re part of a magical situation,” Walker said.
Each year, Free Flight plays about five shows, but because Walker retired from recording movie soundtracks about three years ago, he said they want to increase that number. Next summer, they hope to add a European segment to their summer tour.
“At this point, I’m an old guy to be trying to build a career, except I feel very young, and I’m enjoying it,” Walker said.
Walker is a regular at Chautauqua; his relationship with the Institution began in 1988, when he participated in the Russian musical exchange. The following summer, he was invited back to play with the orchestra.
“It became a family favorite,” Walker said. “So our family has probably been vacationing — and I’ve performed, I think — on four or five occasions. And on other occasions, I just taught master classes.
“I can’t reiterate how unbelievably thrilled I am to bring Free Flight back to the Amphitheater.”
This week, Walker is also performing a concerto at 8:15 p.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.