The Blue Note jazz club in New York has presented some disparate double billings in recent memory. The Mal Waldron and Benny Green double feature is the latest in this unfortunate pairing trend. Benny Green performed his exclusively ballad set solo as an “opener” for Mal Waldron’s trio, which featured the rule-breaking rhythm section of Reggie Workman on bass and percussionist Andrew Cyrille. Both the headliners are pianists with significant reputations and gifts, but the similarities end there. Green has been en route to inheriting the throne of Oscar Peterson for some time now. Waldron, on the other hand (no pun intended), has never needed to rely on the standard repertoire, as his extensive history both as a player and composer will attest. Just turning 76 years old the week before this six-night residency (his auspicious Blue Note debut, believe it or not!), Waldron is nearly forty years Green’s senior.
The audience members of either camp had little interest in staying to hear the other, so needless to say the crowd was somewhat sparse throughout the evening. By the end of Green’s second and final set of music, half of the audience remained to hear Waldron. A few late stragglers took their seats, as Waldron worked his way down the stairs to the stage only minutes after Green himself had left the piano bench. It made you wonder whether the steep cover price plus minimum worked as a contributing deterrent, since most listeners were only coming to see and hear one of the two scheduled artists.
Waldron proved his master status is no fluke. For those who left before he hit the stage, all I have to say is, "You misfortunate souls!" for what you missed. Waldron has developed distinctly unique chord voicings over these many decades of experience. His personal style borders on the more adventurous and freer side of jazz, with a sense of acknowledgement to his bop foundation and obvious debts to Monk. An American jazz expatriate since the mid ‘60s, Waldron has most recently been residing in Belgium for the past half a dozen years. So this was not only a special visit to the Blue Note and New York, but also to the States in general.
Waldron’s obscure original “Hooray for Herbie” (dedicated to two Herbie pianists: Nichols and Hancock) showcased his characteristic rough, jagged, and dark chord voicings. Though Waldron claims this tune has gone unrecorded, I believe it exists on an Enja session he did in the mid ‘70s entitled One Up-Manship, with Steve Lacy. This music offers dramatic evidence for the musical origins of players like Horace Tapscott. Workman showed off his arco bass chops, sounding like a breathy tenor saxophonist a la Ben Webster, before then trading the bow in for his solid pizzicato.
The jazz standard “Soul Eyes” brought back memories of the many classic versions which have been committed to vinyl and now compact disc, starting with Coltrane’s 1957 Prestige version (which, mind you, features Waldron), not to mention Coltrane’s classic quartet rendition from 1962. Drummer Andrew Cyrille, the ideal accompanist for Waldron, bounced in appropriate snare rolls and cymbal splashes and made his presence known despite the lack of a solo.
Interestingly, Waldron broke into a latter-day Miles Davis staple, “Jean Pierre,” which Waldron actually recorded with Workman back in 1993 on My Dear Family. The genius of Waldron, whom one might describe as the “Sonny Rollins of the piano” in a sense, threw together various quotes at lightning speed. By the time you got the melody in your head, he’s already moved on to another idea altogether. Thus, the listener frequently can get caught in a vicious but fascinating game of catch-up. Cyrille took his first drum “solo” of the setnot that he needed itbut took it he certainly did! Rhythmically melodic, acknowledging and exploiting the catchy repetition of the tune’s blues march-like theme, Cyrille again worked as a perfect foil for Waldron. Waldron also received support from Workman’s punchy deep bass lines.
This show makes one wonder why an artist who has played with so many greats, and made plenty of great music on his own, was on the bill at the Blue Note in New York for the very first time. It goes without saying (or does it?) that Waldron was Billie Holiday’s final piano accompanist during the last two years of her life. He also played on records with giants such as Coltrane, Mingus, Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Max Roach, and Steve Lacy, just to name a few. Better late than never, Blue Note, New York! Now let’s work on bringing Mal Waldron back on a single bill or at least a more appropriate double bill, perhaps with someone like...Andrew Hill.
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