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Mal Waldron: Free At Last

Karl Ackermann By

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The sensitivity reflected in much of Mal Waldron's music was a deep aspect of his psyche. The Harlem-born pianist, who died in Brussels, Belgium, in 2002, worked downtown with saxophonist Ike Quebec at Café Society in the early 1950s and went on to record on several Charles Mingus recordings including Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic), Jazz Composers Workshop (Savoy Records), and Mingus At The Bohemia (Debut Records), all released in 1956. Waldron was not at home with Mingus' style of composing and found the bassist intimidating, but the experience opened up the reticent pianist's creative instincts. In 1956 he recorded and released his first leader date, Mal/1 (Prestige Records) featuring trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, and Gigi Gryce on alto sax; the following year he released Mal/2 with John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, and Sahib Shihab, on the same label. In the late 1950s, he received widespread recognition as Billie Holiday's accompanist and—after her death—with Abbey Lincoln and her husband, Max Roach. He recorded eight albums with Roach in the early 1960s. In 1963 Waldron suffered a nervous breakdown, the result of a heroin overdose, and was hospitalized for almost two years. He later moved to Paris at the invitation of a French filmmaker, and with pianist Martial Solal, Waldron scored a film. Remaining in Europe, he slowly revived his career, often recording in trio format with a variety of European and Asian musicians.

In 1969 the German bassist and producer Manfred Eicher, financier Karl Egger and the late free jazz advocate Manfred Scheffner founded ECM Records. Waldron was already successfully reestablished in Europe and had recorded in Germany with the Serbian jazz trumpeter Dusko Gojkovic and his own duo. Waldron was Eicher's choice to launch the iconic record label and Free at Last was the album. Here, the label reissues an extended and remastered version on ECM's fiftieth anniversary. The trio album featured Swiss bassist Isla Eckinger, with whom Waldron frequently performed, and drummer Clarence Becton. Eckinger recorded with Dexter Gordon, Hank Jones and Horace Parlan. Becton's impressive resume includes Miles Davis, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Julius Hemphill, Joe Henderson, Oliver Lake, Thelonious Monk, and many others.

Free at Last was one of three Waldron albums recorded by ECM from 1969-1971. The hard-to-find Spanish Bitch was only released in Japan on the Globe label in 1970 and included bassist Eberhard Weber. The Call was jointly released through JAPO/ECM in 1971 with the same trio as Free at Last. Much of the content on Free at Last is hard-driving, blues inclined, modal music and except for "Willow Weep For Me," all are Waldron compositions. Building out from the original, "Balladina," "1-3-234," "Boo" and "Willow Weep For Me" are offered in alternative versions. From the ten-plus-minute opener, "Rat Now," we hear Waldron on the cusp of his freer self, the vestiges of the Mingus years, extracted for the trio. Waldron did not believe that free jazz equated with wild abandon and to that end we can hear nuances of both Monk and Tommy Flanagan, melody, discord and a touch of Charlie Parker. The lengthy groove-oriented "Rock My Soul" features solid solo performances from each member. The slower-paced originals of "Balladina" and "Willow Weep For Me" lack some of the notable impacts of the rest of the set, but the alternative versions have more kick.

Waldron was one of the best pianists of his generation though somewhat overlooked after his relocation to Europe. He recorded classical music, film scores, rhythm & blues, background music, and almost every sub-genre of jazz. Trained on saxophone, he won a Charlie Parker competition on that instrument but he felt it was too out-front for his reclusive personality. After being diagnosed with cancer, Waldron would continue to tour and record into the year he died. This reengineered release of Free at Last is a worthy addition to any collection. Free at Last is initially offered as a double-LP, later to be available in CD and digital formats.

Track Listing: Side I: Rat Now; Balladina; 1-3-234; Side II: Rock My Soul; Willow Weep For Me; Boo; Side III: 1-3-234; Balladina; Side IV: Boo; Willow Weep For Me.

Personnel: Mal Waldron: piano; Isla Eckinger: double bass; Clarence Becton: drums.

Title: Free At Last | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: ECM Records

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