ANNIVERSARIES: Mal Waldron Born 90 Years Ago

Malcolm Earl "Mal" Waldron was born on August 16, 1925 in New York City. His father worked for the Long Island Rail Road. Mal started taking classical piano lessons at age seven and, inspired by his love of jazz, also learned alto saxophone. He earned a B.A. in Music from Queens College, with the G.I. Bill (he'd been drafted in 1943 and served for two years, fortunately not seeing combat) paying for his tuition. He worked in jazz, blues, and R&B contexts and made his first recording in 1952 as a member of Ike Quebec's band. In '54-56 he was part of Charles Mingus's Jazz Workshop and recorded with Mingus. Waldron went out on his own as a leader at the end of 1956 with the album Mal/1 on Prestige and quickly became one of the prolific label's house pianists. The following year he added to his workload the position of Billie Holiday's accompanist, which garnered him more attention; he stayed in that position until her death in mid-'59.

There was a break in his career following a 1963 heroin overdose that caused a mental breakdown and left him with the shakes to the extent that he could not play the piano. There was temporary brain damage affecting his speed of thought, so even after he had re-taught himself how to play by listening to his own records, for a while he couldn't improvise. He compensated for this mental deficit, while it lasted, by writing out his solos in advance.

Many people assumed that his thornier playing style thereafter, which moved away from chord progressions, was a result of these medical difficulties, but careful attention to his pre-breakdown work shows that he had been moving in that direction already. So, for that matter, had jazz. Waldron himself did say, though, that afterwards he felt he lacked the lyricism he had previously been able to call on.

In 1965, Waldron moved to Paris to work on a film score (Waldron was a more prolific composer than even his considerable jazz output indicates, writing for dance and ballet companies and for film, television, and theater); in 1967 he began living in Munich. As far as I know, he never lived in the United States again, though of course touring and recording took him back there. At some point in the '90s he moved to Brussels, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died of cancer on December 2, 2002, having remained active until he entered the hospital.

The following list is by no means definitive; in his fifty-year recording career, he made over a hundred albums, and I only have or have heard about 40% of them. These are favorites, selected to a certain extent to cover important aspects of his career as a leader. There may be some albums by him that I haven't heard that are better, but I guarantee that all of my selections are excellent. They are in chronological order.

Mal/2 (Prestige)

This album draws on two 1957 sextet sessions most famous for including John Coltrane (tenor sax); the other horns are, on April 19, trumpeter Bill Hardman and alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, with Art Taylor on drums and Julian Euell on bass, and on May 17 (a day on which Waldron ran two sessions), trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, alto and baritone saxophonist Sahib Shihab, Euell, and drummer Ed Thigpen. Waldron ran many dates for Prestige as musical director. Other tracks from the first session here were used on an album that credits no leader, Wheelin' and Dealin'; that album is also recommended, but I choose this one to spotlight Waldron's arranging talents. Waldron would compose some relatively simple tunes (Prestige didn't pay for rehearsals) suitable for jamming and arrange standards (a particular highlight here being "From This Moment On"), often knocking out an album's worth of material in a single session. His tasteful standards arrangements make familiar tunes distinctive without slipping into mannerism. This session is also a good example of Waldron in a straight-ahead bop setting, before his stylistic break.

Left Alone: Dedicated to Billie Holiday (Bethlehem)

The CD I have (Bethlehem 20-3022-2) dates the session as 11/57; other sources say 2/24/59. Either way, it was recorded before the singer died, and isn't particularly related to Holiday aside from the title track and "You Don't Know What Love Is"; the other tracks are two Waldron originals and Sonny Rollins's "Airegin." This is largely a trio session, with the exception that Jackie McLean plays on the album-opening title track that Waldron had composed with lyrics by Holiday. It is a heart-rendingly emotional performance. The other Waldron originals are interesting for anticipating his late modal direction.

The Quest (New Jazz/Prestige)

Another Waldron Prestige session most famous for one of the sidemen -- in this case, Eric Dolphy, in whose band Waldron sometimes played (including a series of Dolphy 'live' albums from the Manhattan club The Five Spot -- on which, alas, the piano is out of tune). The rest of the band is pretty great too: Booker Ervin (tenor saxophone), Ron Carter (cello), Joe Benjamin (bass), and Charlie Persip (drums). (A week earlier, Waldron, Dolphy, and Persip had backed Carter for his Where? album. The Questintroduced the world to two classic Waldron compositions, "Status Seeking" and "Fire Waltz"; all seven tunes on the album are Mal originals. There is a tendency to focus on Dolphy, but consider how effectively Waldron deploys him and what superb settings the pianist provides for him. This 1961 recording is arguably the first truly great Waldron album.

Free at Last (ECM)

This 1969 studio trio recording (ECM's first release) was described by Waldron as "my meeting with free jazz. Free jazz for me does not mean complete anarchy or disorganised sound...you will hear me playing rhythmically instead of soloing on chord changes." Aside from "Willow Weep for Me," the program is all Waldron originals. This is the classic Waldron sound and style, marking in some sense the point at which his career truly restarted after his health problems. It isn't really free jazz in the sense most people use the term, but it is definitely more unfettered than his earlier work. This makes his harmonies on "Balladina" especially piquant; they are still harmonies on a chord progression -- and, contrary to his statement quoted in my introduction, the melody is lyrical, though a darker lyricism -- but less constrained. The brooding power of this album, rather than technical/academic distinctions, is what makes it a landmark in his development.

Mal Waldron on Steinway (Fuel 2000)

This 1972 solo studio session has four tracks, all brilliant, all using a loose structure defined by left-hand vamps ranging from single chords to more elaborate progressions, over which Waldron’s right hand roams freely. “Portrait of a Bullfighter” has an apt flamenco feel. “One for Bud” pays tribute to Bud Powell, an important influence on Waldron as on so many other pianists. “For Erik Satie” is the one-chord vamp, a meditative ballad. And then comes the majestic, side-long “Paris Reunited,” with an ascending ground bass over which Waldron embroiders bluesy turns before going through a rumbling, tension-filled free section, a quietly ruminative part that undulates through three chords and then gets slimmed down to two, an impressionist/expressionist skein of wild chords, a syncopated passage that builds to ferocious intensity and then becomes darkly lyrical, organically morphing into another powerful vamp but with herky-jerky spasms, a return to the thick wild chords now with interspersed arpeggios followed by a section that ties together several strands of preceding sections and steamrolls into another vamp, and finishes with a dramatic decrescendo to a quiet stop. It’s an 18-1/2 minute masterpiece of spur-of-the-moment composition.

Hard Talk (Enja)

This 'live' quintet recording (5/4/74) is a particularly intense album, especially the first two tracks, "Snake Out" and "Hard Talk," which give Steve Lacy, German cornetist Manfred Schoof, Swiss bassist Isla Eckinger, and drummer Allen Blairman (another American who moved to Germany) plenty of freedom. The title track is practically the Platonic ideal of Waldron's vamping modal style, and his solo there is positively hypnotic. (Lacy and Schoof are in a similar Waldron quintet on another excellent album from '77, One-Upmanship (Inner City).

Live at Dreher Paris 1981 vols. 1-2 (Hat Art)

Waldron and Lacy had worked together for decades (the Lacy-led 1958 LP Reflections, a tribute to Thelonious Monk, being a particularly interesting early example), but this was their first recording as a duo. Lacy's love of the compositions of Thelonious Monk, whose piano style influenced Waldron on a deep level, is reflected in the program; three Monk tunes are played twice each, and the iconic "'Round Midnight" is heard thrice. Waldron's own compositional catalog is also mined to good effect, with the striking "Snake Out" (already a highlight of Hard Talk) getting two extensive explorations. This out-of-print four-CD set is well worth tracking down, even though it is so legendary that you may have to pay three figures. If you can't find it, their 1986 duo Sempre Amore (Soul Note), an album of Ellington and Strayhorn tunes, is a mellower but still interesting alternative.

Update (Soul Note)

Another solo album, from 1986, with an odd yet effective program: two dedications to Cecil Taylor, sounding nothing like Taylor; three standards, "The Inch Worm," "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," and "I Should Care," personalized with Waldron's usual distinctive touch; and a brilliant reimagining of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia." In particular, hearing how he adapts "The Inch Worm" -- moved into a triple meter -- to his repetitive, mantric style is both amusing and impressive.

The Git Go & The Seagulls of Kristiansund (Soul Note)

These two albums document a September 16, 1986 gig at the Village Vanguard. Waldron and his frequent rhythm section of bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Ed Blackwell are joined by Woody Shaw (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Charlie Rouse (tenor sax, flute). In concert, they have plenty of room to stretch out on classic Waldron tunes: Status Seeking" (20:19) and the title track (25:31) on Git Go, "Snake Out" (17:19), "Judy" (12:42), and the title track (26:02) on Seagulls, and with musicians of this caliber, it is room well used, and the horn players' temperaments are well matched to Waldron's music. (For some reason, Amazon's MP3 store has Git Go priced at $1.78 and Seagulls at $2.67, so if MP3 sound doesn't bother you, there's your bargain for the day.) 

One More Time (Sketch/Harmonia Mundi)

On his final session, Waldron stared death in the face and, musically speaking, didn’t flinch. There are two solo piano tracks, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel duets with Waldron on four (including a dually credited free improvisation), and Lacy joins them on "You" and "Soul Eyes." The solo pieces find Waldron looked over the edge of the abyss, their stark beauty unnerving but uplifting. In contrast, the tracks with Lacy are loving, even nostalgic; “Soul Eyes” is one of Waldron’s oldest and most famous pieces. Waldron's liner note (in its entirety) states, "Measured against eternity, our life span is very short, so I am extremely happy to have this record as a high point of mine." It truly is a high point. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was recently heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film ArchivesThe CD of the soundtrack, by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure), was released August 7.

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