Nights At The Keyboard: Connie Crothers & Mal Waldron

Nic Jones By

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Solo jazz piano playing is an area of the music fraught with risks at the same time as the piano is the instrument best suited to solo music making. In the past, Bill Evans circumnavigated some of the problems inherent in the medium through overdubbing, a course which neither Connie Crothers nor Mal Waldron has opted for on the albums discussed here. Similarly, neither player occupies a stylistic area close to that of Art Tatum, whose solo piano recordings have the effect of rendering any kind of accompaniment irrelevant. Both Crothers and Waldron have however carved out stylistic niches of their own, and they both have underlying stylistic allegiances. In Crothers' case the pianist is Lennie Tristano, whilst with Waldron both Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk informed his work. But as in all of the worthwhile cases these influences have been assimilated, and the product of that process has been piano playing of great individuality.

In direct comparison, Waldron purged his playing of all excesses in a way that's not instantly detectable in the playing of Crothers. For example, in his reading of Frank Loesser's "The Inch Worm" all thoughts of Danny Kaye are immediately banished as he takes the song on what can only be described as a twilight jaunt, where excess is anathema; it's as if he's hit upon the kind of interpretation in which every passing idea flows logically into the next and the end result is a seamless performance that's rung the nuances dry. This is even better exemplified by the lengthy "Free For C.T." -dedicated to Cecil Taylor?- where Waldron habitually nags at certain keys, inducing a kind of stasis which exists for as long as it takes him to decide that he's rung every nuance out of the keys concerned. What the listener is left with is the opposite of cocktail piano, where interpretation is less important than the ability to infuse everything with a sheen of dexterity that doesn't get remotely close to the heart of a song. Instead, Waldron, in his concern with the very essence of a song, takes the form into areas some distance from the composer's intentions.

Crothers' reading of "Lover Man," by contrast, meanders somewhat, though the fact that it does says more about Waldron's astringency than it does about a lack of focus on her part. Here not only does she not state the theme, she also puts out some startlingly oblique and dark variations which, whilst they might lack Waldron's overriding sense of form, have the effect of making the listener recall the melody as a guide for what's going on. Crothers is ultimately the more impressionistic of the two pianists, albeit with a certain sense of unease often underscoring her impressions.

Comparing and contrasting the solo work of these two pianists with their group work discloses how aware they are of the difference in musical setting. Crothers here seems more aware of the very sound of the piano she's playing, a point less evident in her group work, where a different set of demands is made of a pianist. As it is, and to take the impressionistic aspects of her solo playing, a piece like "Be," for all of its knotty yet unresolved air, might serve as a kind of soundtrack for Camille Pissarro's painting Boulevard Montmartre, Night of 1897, where the artist's portrayal of nocturnal human activity offers visual counterpoint to music from the everyday life of Crothers.

There is of course no ultimate solution to any problem inherent in the medium of solo jazz piano, and both Crothers and Waldron work here as jazz pianists in the most fundamental sense of that term, i.e. they bring to their music depths of personality that transcend the comparatively trivial requirements of virtuosity and conventional dexterity. If for either of them the piano amounts to an orchestra, then they're both acutely aware of the colours and moods it can produce.

Mal Waldron— Update (Soul Note, 1986)
Connie Crothers— Music From Everyday Life (New Artists Records, 1993)

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