June 25, 2024


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Mal Waldron paid the most appropriate respect to his principal influences – Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk: Video

16.08. – Happy Birthday !!! The American jazz musician Mal Waldron paid the most appropriate respect to his principal influences – Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk – and was a pianist of stubborn singularity, with a rigorous, flinty individualism as unconcernedly independent as Monk’s, though not as bold in conception or memorable in theme.

He also had a remarkable knack for being in the right place at the right time. He performed with many of the most illustrious young players of the 1950s – including John Coltrane – while working as a pianist for Prestige Records, was hired at a day’s notice to become Billie Holiday’s accompanist for the last two years of her life, and played on the first recording made by the German label ECM.

When he played on the conceptually radical saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s remarkable 1987 tribute to Thelonious Monk’s composing, Waldron was the direct opposite of Braxton’s heated, lava-flow delivery. His solos exhibited coherence and purpose, for all their frequent taciturnity, prodding right-hand figures struck as firmly as if he were knocking in nails, stubbornly Monkish doodlings on brief motifs turning into the bumpy block-chord playing that was his signature sound.

Waldron was born in New York. He wanted to be a classical pianist and composer, and went to the city’s Queen’s College to study composition for ballet, but was also a competent jazz alto saxophonist. He committed himself to jazz piano during this period, worked in a variety of New York bands and performed with soul-jazz saxophonist Ike Quebec in 1950.

His early playing years were often spent in rhythm and blues groups, and the directness this gave him was a factor in his becoming involved with the bassist/composer Charles Mingus. Waldron regularly participated in Mingus’s jazz adventures between 1954 and 1956, performing twice at the Newport jazz festival.

In 1956, he also formed his own quintet with saxophonist Gigi Gryce and trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, and became involved with Bob Weinstock’s jazz-enthusiasts’ label Prestige, where he virtually became house pianist. The opportunity brought him into contact with a procession of star soloists, but Waldron was maturing both as a writer and a player. He began composing, and one of his pieces from this period – Soul Eyes – became a widely performed standard.

He was with Billie Holiday until her death in 1959. Patient with her unpredictability, he loyally recalled her addressing him “like a big sister” when he began to work with her, helping, rather than bullying him to play what she needed – the earthiness and blues feel with which he was familiar.

Waldron led the Impressions trio session for Prestige in a fascinating set. He also began to work with Abbey Lincoln, a singer significantly influenced by Holiday, continued studio work, appeared in a band led by saxophonist Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Booker Little, and scored and performed in the 1963 film, The Cool World.

But in the same year, Waldron suffered a catastrophic nervous breakdown, an event sometimes described as splitting his career into two distinct phases. The collapse was so profound that he relearnt his craft, and recast it in an even leaner and more deliberate mould. He also became increasingly amenable to free jazz and ways of improvising independently of chord sequences, particularly after his move to Europe in the mid-1960s.

In Paris in 1964, Waldron worked with a number of expatriate American musicians, including drummer Kenny Clarke and saxophonist Ben Webster, and regularly performed on radio. In 1967, he settled in Munich and, in 1969, helped launch the former bassist Manfred Eicher’s ECM label there, with the intriguing semi-free session Free At Last.

Less than a decade later, Waldron was also involved in the beginnings of another European jazz label, ENJA – a collaboration with former Monk saxophonist Steve Lacy. He began working in Japan during the 1970s, and started to revisit his homeland, sometimes unaccompanied, sometimes with quartets.

Waldron often seemed at his best alone or one-to-one – he was immensely creative in duos with Lacy and with South African bassist Johnny Dyani. In September 1986, he returned to New York’s Village Vanguard nightclub, recording two albums with trumpeter Woody Shaw, Charlie Rouse, and a fine rhythm section of Reggie Workman (bass) and Ed Blackwell (drums), released on Soul Note as The Git Go and The Seagulls of Kristiansund. The music showed him at his most determinedly minimalist, building solos out of hypnotically minuscule variations. He also recorded tributes to Booker Little and Eric Dolphy, with contemporary performers Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison taking on those roles.

Through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Waldron continued to experiment, performed in duo with pianist Andrew Hill in 1988 and saxophonist Chico Freeman in 1990, and continued to lead mutated-bop quintets. In the 1990s, he moved to Brussels, and developed a fruitful working relationship with an equally independent performer, the British saxophonist George Haslam.

In 1995, he composed and performed a piece in Japan, for the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing – the concert also commemorated his 70th birthday. Though his health declined in the later 1990s, he continued a busy schedule, making excellent records mingling traditional Japanese music and jazz (Travellin’ In Soul-Time, with singer Jeanne Lee and flautist Toru Tenda), and a session of meditative, slowly unfurling group interplay on 2000’s Into The Light, with vibraharpist Christian Burchard.

He was married twice, and is survived by seven children.

Malcolm Earl ‘Mal’ Waldron, pianist, born August 16 1925; died December 2 2002.

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