Columbia Spectator NYC Interview: Narada Michael Walden talks about playing with Mahavishnu, switching to producing dance music, and making people happy

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Musician Narada Michael Walden’s résumé is nothing short of impressive.

Having worked both as a jazz fusion drummer playing with legends like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, and John McLaughlin, and as a producer working with stars including Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, Walden continues to thrive as an artist with a wide palette of influences, performing both music and dance. Currently touring with his band, Walden is set to play at the Iridium Jazz Club this upcoming Friday.

Walden’s career as a drummer started with promise when he joined the Mahavishnu Orchestra after drummer Billy Cobham left the band.

“It was the best in the world, because I went from working in a restaurant to playing with the best bands in the world,” Walden said. “Mahavishnu put me on the map…and gave me the opportunity to be more known. That opened the door to meeting Jeff Beck and everybody who later came after that.”

Walden’s life as a musician changed when his friend, Ramon Silva, asked him to produce an album by Don Cherry, called “Hear & Now.”

“Tony Williams played a track, Lenny White played a track,” Walden said of the record. “It was very nice to have my first intro to production that way. And then I produced an album for Stacy Lattisaw, called “Let Me Be Your Angel,” which is more rock, soul, pop music.”

But to stay relevant in music, Walden couldn’t play and produce jazz forever. When his label threatened to drop him in 1977, he had to explore innovative musical territory.

“My record label told me that if I didn’t have a hit, they would have dropped me,” Walden said. “At that time in 1977, disco music was hot, so I just jumped on disco music. I always wanted to be successful and make it and not be dropped as an artist.”

Walden ascribes his artistic success to his diverse musical taste and his ability to make this transition.

“If you listen to all kinds of music when you’re a child, then you can stay in music forever.”

While Walden transgresses genres, jazz holds a special place in his heart. It has influenced him throughout his life and across multiple instruments.

“Jazz opens up to high music,” Walden said. “If I could understand jazz…I could put my mind to almost anything I wanted to.”

In this way, jazz was always a part of what Walden did.

“When I was working with Whitney Houston, I was always bringing Mahavishnu Orchestra energy into Whitney Houston’s music,” Walden said. “I got the best of the worlds and mixed it a little bit.”

Even in Walden’s drum playing, jazz has always been an influence, no matter the genre. “When I played rock, I played jazz influence into rock,” Walden said. “I love the freedom of jazz in rock. So you can go higher. Because jazz is the highest for me, it expresses on the highest plateau.”

Walden’s creative efforts go beyond his work in famous fusion bands and his dance productions. He has also been prolific as a solo artist, performing his own compositions and arrangements up until this day.

Today, Walden tours with his own band. His most recent releases, “Thunder,” released in 2013, and “Evolution,” released in October, showcase his musical diversity.

“‘Thunder’ I made after my tour with Jeff Beck, so ‘Thunder’ kind of represents the rock/blues spirit that I felt on the stage with Jeff,” Walden said.

“Evolution,” meanwhile, is more personal.

“I almost wanted to make a dance statement and a happy record, because I have a new family. That’s what the new evolution is. More happy, upbeat, and dance to this evolution of life.”

After all, music is about happiness, according to Walden.

“[I] wanna just play in Europe, play in all of the world eventually, and make people happy with music,” he said. “That’s the mission.”

Narada Michael Walden and his band will be playing at The Iridium Jazz Club this Friday, Nov. 13.