The digital age with its bits and bytes has allowed for huge musical projects and reissue bonanzas. We have come from Louis Armstrong playing two minute classics cut into cylinders to today’s complete recordings of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson sessions, expanded from double LPs to four and five CDs of raw material.
Like Keith Jarrett’s recent live six-disc Blue Note set, the sprawling Live At Dreher, Paris 1981 is a large scale recording documenting a performance by saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist Mal Waldron from August 1981. Like any multiple night stand, you hear several performances of the musician’s repertoire and work product. The three versions of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” are anything but repetitive. These two musicians, playing Monk’s music together since originally recording it in 1957 for Lacy’s Reflections album, take turns opening the classic, soloing, and reinterpreting the incredibly difficult tune’s meaning.
The pair present nearly four and a half hours of music here. Sadly, with the passing of Mal Waldron last December, no new recordings will be made. This outing can be added to a stack of previous duets on Soul Note, RCA, Slam and Nel Jazz.
It only seems appropriate here that besides the duo’s originals, the only other music they play is that of Thelonious Monk. As common ground, Monk provides the vernacular for the pairing. To call Monk’s music quirky and angular today is to be moldy. He has been decoded by everyone from big bands to jam bands. His music, now accepted as a jazz rite of passage, is regularly played in Starbucks franchise latte houses.
Just as Thelonious was known to chastise Miles Davis for his inability to play “Round Midnight” correctly, few actually render Monk correctly. If Monk’s music had an extended user's manual, it would specify “see recordings by Steve Lacy.” Lacy has always been spot one with his take on Monk. From playing him "straight" in 1957 to these expansive mature duos, Lacy’s "Monk" is the resolution of Coltrane’s Five Spot gig and Charlie Rouse’s tenure with the pianist's quartet. Lacy doesn’t smooth the rough edges that is Monk’s music. He plays with caustic tone, his trademark soprano saxophone firing a heap of all-to-familiar notes.
Where Lacy is rough, Mal Waldron smoothens the pages here. He doesn’t mirror Monk (or Lacy), but plays perfect balance to Lacy's acerbic tone. While Lacy soars on Monk’s closer “Epistrophy,” Waldron chugs along as train over tracks. When he does solo on “Herbe De L’oubile,” he changes pace, slowing the affair with his bell-ringing sound. Waldron has accompanied the greats of jazz, from Billie Holiday to John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus. As a sideman, his brilliance as a player has long been overlooked.
In 1981, when Lacy takes the horn out of his mouth, a quiet hush begins. You feel yourself lean in to absorb his playing. Waldron is one part Monk and Herbie Nichols and two parts quiet elegance. He has the rhythmic propulsion to move the music forward, yet he plays with an economy of style to keep things simple.
The four-plus hours of Live At Dreher are quite an undertaking for both performer and listener. Small amounts taken over a long period of time will yield maximum enjoyment.
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Personnel: Mal Waldron - piano; Steve Lacy - soprano saxophone.