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Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy

Mal Waldron With The Steve Lacy Quintet (America Records/Gravure Universelle)


Over the past year or so, Mal Waldron has become one of my favorite pianist/composers. There is an ever searching quality about the man and his music. Unlike some other of the other artists who over the course of their career also had stylistic changes, the artistic evolution of Mal Waldron always came across as completely organic.

This is largely because he never totally disregarded any aspect of his work, rather he would build off of it, adding new things he came across or learned.

Despite how rewarding his body of work is, he still very much remains a “musician’s musician” in the States. Like his playing, there is an inherent logic in how he developed as an artist.

Mal Waldron (1926-2002) learned classical piano at the age of eight. He also played alto sax in his school band. He often cited having heard Bird play as making the prospect of going on with alto too intimidating, the catalyst for him switching full time to piano.

In 1943 he served in the U.S Army, based out of New York, training cavalry horses. Being able to remain in New York allowed him to delve deeply into the jazz scene. 1946 found him demobilized. At Queens College in New York he obtained his B.A in composition. Four years after this he made his professional debut with saxophonist Ike Quebec.

Mal’s next prime gig was a two year stint with Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop. At this point, Mingus was already exploring the extended suite-like forms that showed him to be heir apparent to Duke Ellington.

Temperaments aside, the two men artistically shared the ability to, regardless of the size of their ensembles, write and play music which was directly in line with European-classical tone-poems and programmatic compositions being done by composers such as Richard Strauss, Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky.

Two good examples of what this brief collaboration achieved can be found on CD. Charles Mingus’s first album for Atlantic, Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956) features the tone-poem title track which is said to be the first recorded appearance of one of Charles Mingus’s extended compositions, describing man’s first walking upright.

The live album Mingus at the Bohemia (Debut/Fantasy, 1955) features a different front line with same rhythm section. (There is also a companion album from this live date Plus Max Roach). The track “All the Things You C#” finds the standard “All the Things You Are” being seamlessly married to Rachmaninov’s “Prelude in C Sharp”. A further classical connection is made when Mal conjures up motifs of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”.

Later in life Mal Waldron said that Charles Mingus further widened his musical vocabulary, having him not just play “from the middle of the piano, but from end to end utilizing both hands and even some times {his} elbows”.

There was always a classical aspect to his playing, yet he never got locked down to playing and writing just in that vein as Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis so brilliantly would. He was also in touch with the more primal aspects of his music, such as the blues, his piano the late night wisdom which would wait until dawn or that last kiss. An ability to work in great sympathy with whomever he recorded/gigged/combined with and a fierce, always present intellect allowed him to work with Billy Holiday as her last accompanist. A partnership which lasted until her death, one of her most successful with a pianist, save for that with Teddy Wilson.

After The Jazz Workshop and after Billy, Mal went to the Prestige label where he basically became the “house” pianist. It was also during this time he wrote the jazz standard “Soul Eyes.”

His first great partnership in which all concerned were on the same wrung of the “fame” ladder was with the Eric Dolphy/Booker Little ensemble. They recorded three historic live albums in 1961. (Live at the Five Spot, Prestige)

Booker Little was a trumpet wunderkind, with a crisp articulation and an orchestral way of thinking. He brought something new and exciting to jazz. Like Mal, Booker had formally studied, at The Chicago Conservatory. Booker had appeared (non-soloing) in the brass section of John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass Sessions (Impulse!, 1961) which was orchestrated by Eric Dolphy and McCoy Tyner.

Although Booker’s early albums are compelling, done mostly under the wing of Max Roach, he did not fully blossom until his partnership with Eric and Mal. Sadly this partnership would also prove to be his swan song, Booker dying right as the band’s reputation was gaining momentum of Uremia at the too young age of 23.

Eric Dolphy was a multi-reedman who got his start in percussionist Chico Hamilton’s band. Although he expressively played alto sax, he was equally adept on several instruments not usually associated with jazz; bassoon, clarinet and bass clarinet. Like Mal he thought outside of the established constraints of how jazz music should be played/written. Indeed these three together, had they had more time, would most likely be considered closer to modern classical or the downtown sound as exemplified by John Zorn. Eric’s way of playing and constructing his solos, a fertile, speaking in tongues, was so new a thing it was edited out of the original Ellington Suite album by Chico Hamilton (only restored in 2006). A beauty, complexly built out of certain elements of discordance which served him well in partnerships with Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. Occasionally Eric Dolphy would go back to Charles Mingus to play in one of his various sized ensembles. It was while his first Blue Note Records release as a leader (Out To Lunch, Blue Note Records, 1964) was being readied for release and he was winding down a European tour, that Eric Dolphy would die from complications of Diabetes.

News of Eric’s premature death would figure in as a factor in a period of ill health for both Charles Mingus and Mal. According to Mal, after this nervous break down he would have to relearn to play by listening to his own records.

The first wave of beboppers wanted to be considered musicians, not entertainers. Now, almost a generation later, a new group was emerging who were not just musicians, but composers. They embraced formal studies and the Western classical tradition while also embracing ethnic-roots driven world music. Charles Mingus and his circle of peers would embrace these elements and mix them with the vernacular of the day, jazz. A jazz style that often leapfrogged genres.

As Eric Dolphy had been in the process of doing, Mal emigrated to Europe where his music could organically grow, supported by the respect it deserved.

Europe proved itself fertile ground for Mal. Work was not always easy to come by, but an asset to any artist who wished to follow their muse and transcend concerns of audience and critics being able to easily pigeon hole their art into a ready made genre was the inherent elasticity of modern art tradition found in Europe.

In New York Mal had played before small, knowing crowds in clubs and cafes, while in Europe he scored films and ballets.

It was during the initial phase of what would be a long European exile Mal would start his second great partnership, one which would span some thirty years and last right up until he died.

Steve Lacy (1934-2004) started his career playing soprano sax in Dixieland bands. At time only Sidney Bechet had been widely heard on this temperamental instrument, it instantly cast a spell over him. He originally appeared in jazz roots bands of Henry “Red” Allen and “Pops” Foster. There was a lack of music for his instrument and transcriptions of other instruments’ solos never sounded right to his ears. It forced him to very quickly not only devise his own way of playing but new things to play.

This avant approach made for a key ingredient in pianist/composer Cecil Taylor’s debut album “Jazz Advance” (Blue Note Records 1955). He would also appear on early solo efforts of arranger/composer/pianist Gil Evans. He would work with both artists off and on throughout the late fifties into the early sixties.

Transcriptions of well covered songs still sounded “off” to him, even more so now that he had been so fully immersed in the unique art of Cecil Taylor. At this time Thelonious Monk’s music was little known and rarely covered; the perfect new soil from which this “new” instrument could sprout. Reflections (Prestige, 1958) was Steve’s first all Monk album. It featured Mal Waldron on piano. For the rest of his life, Steve would always go back to the music of Monk and to projects that included Mal on piano. Since the time of its initial conception Monk has finally taken his place with in the pantheon of jazz, but many of the songs on this album remain largely uncovered. A daring enterprise now, all the more so back then.

Steve would actually play with Monk, first in a quintet (1960) then a few years later as part of a special big band concert lead by Monk and captured on record as Monk’s Big Band/Quartet (Columbia, 1963). Both Mal and Steve would remain not only Monk’s disciples but also the foremost interpreters of his music. They had the instinctual abilities to not play what Monk would play, but how he would play it.

The later part of the sixties stateside saw Free Jazz and The New Thing emerge briefly in prominence. Some of this music is still important and holds up to the test of time while other albums seem very much to be a snapshot of the turbulent years which birthed them. The music would very quickly morph, taking in rock and roll influences, to become fusion. Some of the Free and New Thing practitioners would embrace elements of world music too.

The composer/musicians in exile seemed to fare a little better. Together and on their own Mal and Steve would delve deeper into modern classical also incorporating aspects of the avant-garde.

Like Mal, Steve would write ballets, chamber pieces for solo and group instruments and pieces which utilized text of modern poets whom he admired. Eventually Steve, like Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton, would be awarded the McArthur Foundation genius grant.

He possessed a dry tone drastically different from what was being done on soprano by his nearest contemporary John Coltrane, who usually opted for a more nasal-Mideastern flavor to his playing. Having immersed himself in the music of Monk showed Steve the way with his own music, which contains figures that often snake back onto themselves to be expressed again in different tempos. Whether in a solo, group or duo setting; Steve would always go back to the music of Monk as he would also always his partnership with Mal. In both cases the results never failed to offer up memorable musical moments.

Aside from a great artistic fraternity, another thing that both Mal and Steve had in common is their discography and its potential handicaps. Both artists have vast body of work, but a lot of it, some of their finest moments are on smaller European labels. This is by no means a factor in the fidelity of sound, but does figure into both availability and price when trying to obtain the CDs in the states.

Part of the problem too is that like a lot of modernists who spent time living over in Europe their bodies of work are scattered across many labels, not all easy to find. The other thing which may intimidate someone new to their work is lack of rule when first starting out. Unlike some artists, there is no general rule of thumb in regards to where to start (i.e. everything by Thelonious Monk on Riverside is worthwhile).

Speaking in the broadest of terms, Jazz started off as music largely for those “in the know” a thing of speakeasies and secret, after-hours clubs. Greater exposure and populists elements slowly crept in so that it provided a soundtrack for a generation’s youth. As it found its popularity some artists wanted to explore outside the mainstream; be less entertainers and more the artists. This exploration gave us subgenres which incorporate cerebral and avant-garde aspects of the broad term “jazz”.

We are once again on the back swing of the pendulum; people want pretty pieces, easy to digest. Jazz is in danger of becoming too “nice” because of this current trend. Miles Davis’s watermark album Kind of Blue (Columbia Records. 1959) is becoming a soundtrack for yuppies to shop at Borders to. Although there is in fact, new challenging things coming out today, it is mostly kept in a sort of cultural ghetto: small labels and little exposure to non-aficionados.

Largely the problem has less to do with artistic execution of the music and more to do with people’s listening habits. It has become a rare thing for the more casual listener of any type of music to just sit down and actually listen to their music. The myth of multi-tasking is giving the nation the aural attention span of a goldfish.

The Gravure Universelle/America Records label specializes in reissues of free/avant-garde music. A cursory glance at their roster of artists shows a list that reads like a musical brain trust: Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Just as Blue Note Records had a distinctive sound in the early sixties and a certain look with the great cover photos by Francis Wolf, so too does this label. All their CDs come in matte, cardboard cases which open up into three panels. One side contains a booklet of liner notes from the albums original release along with new essays. The other section has a cardboard slip case with the CD. The covers feature photos of painting/collage/sculptures by modern abstractionists such as Jerome Witz.

I have many albums by the two leaders of this date, but none from this label. I knew it would be worthwhile, the only question being exactly what treasures would be offered up.

the CD cover

This album contains all originals written by either Mal Waldron or Steve Lacy. It was recorded live (1972 Paris) in the studio and the sound quality is very good. The interplay between not just Mal and Steve, but the whole band is amazing. It goes beyond a good interplay to that stratum only rarely occupied by musicians under certain optimal conditions.

The first piece “Vio” was written by Mal Waldron. The beginning part of it contains a frenzied piano which gallops and provides a sort of foundation, first for a neighing horse/speaking in tongues horn part, then Irene Aebi’s sawed cello.

Kent Carter plays double bass on this album and in keeping with the rest of what is going on, none of the instruments play strictly in their traditional roles. At times his bass will sympathetically bubble up a rich toned note or two as the tempo changes, other times his sound is sort of absorbed into the cello part, blurring the lines of distinction as to who is playing what. It is an effect that happens many times over the course of the album with all the instruments. Multi-reedist Steve Potts, at different points plays soprano and alto simultaneously while doing a frenzied duet with Steve Lacy’s soprano.

My favorite moment of this multi-instrument musical absorption occurs during the start of the Steve Lacy penned song “Blue Wee,” which was dedicated to Louis Armstrong (1901-1971). The piano starts out in a straight ahead hard-bop fashion, but the bass and cello play in a sort of unison; not just of tempo but timber as well, combining with a breath softly being blown into a horn to give an almost vocalist effect. Then the two horns play the main theme in unison with the piano alternating between cascading notes and percussive plinks.

“Blue Wee” at its start has a sort of cheery and elliptical theme to it, one line from which the entire piece is built off of. What is impressive here, is that halfway through the piece the theme is left, the song morphs, going on to adopt another theme initially stated in a cascading piano pattern. Amidst all the discordance and quickly shifting patterns the piano again states an almost gospel flavored idea before a soprano horn takes over, once more changing the pattern.

The song ends with same bass figure which introduced the piece and a fragmented piano softly sounding off.

A lot of Mal Waldron’s peers would play in a percussive gospel or classically tinged way and throw in a little discordance now and then for flavoring. On this album Mal’s playing is the inverse of this, offering up brief moments of sanctified blues runs before delving back into the modern classical feel of the pieces.

All the pieces are densely layered giving the illusion of far bigger ensemble than what is playing. The music has a sort of cathartic violence about it as can also be found in some of the best modern classical (Arnold Schoenberg, Edgar Varese, Gyorgy Ligeti). The structure of the music and how tension and release are achieved is often reminiscent of different types of Mideastern, African and Gamelan music in the way it’s all layered. Like that music, it is not about where a solo enters, what it says or when it leaves, instead all these smaller parts interlocking form a sort of sonic tapestry.

Essentially the album is three songs with two alternate takes. Each piece averages about twelve minutes and the alternate takes show in a compelling way the level of improvisation these musicians all these musicians possessed.

The alternate take of “Vio” features a duet between drums and bass which is almost trance inducing. It is not a matter of one version of “Vio” being stronger, so much as preferred.

I have enjoyed everything I have gotten from this label but it is far from easy listening. I would not put this album on every day or at anytime but I think with any powerful experience; whether food, drink or music, that could be said.



Steve Lacy - Soprano Saxophone

Steve Potts - Soprano& Alto Saxophone

Mal Waldron - Piano

Irene Aebi – Cello, Vocals

Kent Carter – Double Bass

Noel McGhie - Drums



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