The reason that world-renown clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera likes playing with Mark Walker is that the multiple Grammy-winning drummer “doesn’t play too loud.” D’Rivera says this with a laugh, but he’s more than serious about his appreciation of the rhythmic refinement that Walker has brought to their 30 years of collaboration. “Many musicians, especially drummers, lose their energy when you ask them to play soft,” he explained.  “Mark can play with the same energy without raising the volume. That’s really hard to find.”

This past April Walker released You Get What You Give (Fliposphere Music), serving as leader for the first time in his decades-long career. “I just felt that it was time to get my own stuff out there,” he said. “Because Oregon is not touring anymore and Paquito is doing more guest artist work and using [his regular players] less often.”

By Oregon, Walker refers to the jazz/world fusion band he joined in 1996. That year, the group called him to play on Northwest Passage, their first release for the German label, Intuition Records. Oregon founder guitarist Ralph Towner was so taken with Walker’s playing on the record that he asked him right then to become a member of the ground-breaking group.

At the time Walker had just started to compose his own material, and the new group proved to be a good place to develop his burgeoning compositional skills. “Ralph has got such a great knowledge of music,” said Walker. “If there’s anything trite about a composition he’ll flat out reject it. I call it the Ralph test.”

Several of Walker’s tunes passed the Ralph test, among them the high-octane “Deep Six,” which appeared on the Oregon album 1000 Kilometers (CAM Jazz) in 2007 and earned Walker a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Composition in 2008. That same year he won a Grammy as part of D’Rivera’s quintet on Funk Tango (Sunnyside), in the Best Latin Jazz Album category.

By the time Funk Tango snagged the Grammy, Walker had been playing Latin music for almost 20 years and had become a first-call drummer for D’Rivera. But back in the late 1980s, when Walker had just started playing with prominent Latin musicians, the learning curve was steep. “I was thrown into this world of Afro-Cuban rhythms and didn’t really know any of them,” Walker admitted. “I learned a lot of them from non-percussionists and worked with a lot of musicians from different places. So it’s been a crash course in Afro-Latin rhythms over the last 30 years.”

These two disparate influences—Oregon’s jazz/world fusion and D’Rivera’s intense Latin drive—meet up on the new release. “When I wrote these tunes, you could say that I had a foot in each of these two different worlds,” Walker said. “I was trying to combine them, and I wanted the groove to be really strong.”

To pull this off, Walker used two discrete bands with “a really hopping rhythm section,” both recorded at Berklee College of Music, almost exactly 12 years apart to the day. The first band, from a 2007 session, comprises players from another of Walker’s early gigs—the Caribbean Jazz Project—and reflects Walker’s first successes as a composer. This group turned out a rendition of “Deep Six” with both a stronger bite and a softer swing than the Oregon version, and Walker’s original, “What About That,” from Funk Tango, which shows off both his authentically specific Latin grooves and a sweet melodicism that D’Rivera champions during solos.

The second band, recorded earlier this year, expressed Walker’s more straight-ahead bebop side—a ferocious take on Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” for instance, and Walker’s own seductively lilting “Andalusian Sunrise.” The swing sections interspersed throughout the new album and the intricate jazz harmonies over which the soloists improvise are telling: they ground the album resolutely in Walker’s persona as a jazz musician. Despite all else, “I go back to my roots,” he asserts. “I gravitated toward jazz in my teens and I never really left.”

Walker’s next project explores yet another aspect of his jazz persona—a big band album that recalls his time behind the kit for some of Europe’s top jazz orchestras. But the first chart, already recorded, indicates anything but a reversal. He wrote the tune, “Walk the Walk,” for Oregon, and he’s thinking about using Latin feels throughout the album, maybe adding steelpans.

As he discusses the new album, Walker looks forward to working with a jazz orchestra again. “A drummer in a big band is always happy. It’s like driving a big bus,” he concludes.

(Reprinted from the July 2019 issue of Downbeat magazine)