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Mal Waldron

Mal Waldron was an American jazz pianist and composer with a brooding, blues-drenched, rhythmic, highly adaptable style offering distinctive chord voicings, unique left-hand patterns, and enough flexibility to play hard bop and free jazz. He worked with Charles Mingus during the 1950s, but is best known as Billie Holiday's final accompanist. He served as Prestige Records' house pianist from the mid-'50s to the early '60s, and in 1961 he led the sessions that became The Quest, with Eric Dolphy and Booker Ervin. It featured one of his most famous compositions, "Fire Waltz." He emigrated to Europe in 1966 and released his first solo piano album, All Alone. In 1969 he issued Free at Last as ECM's inaugural release. During the '70s and '80s, Waldron played concerts and recorded under his own name and as a collaborator, touring almost incessantly. Snake-Out, a live duo outing with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, kicked off a series of occasional recordings and tours, culminating with 1997's Communiqué. That year's solo Maturity also featured his vocals. Maturity 2: He's My Father appeared posthumously in 2003. In 2022, Tompkins Square issued the archival Searching in Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert. He was born Malcolm Earl Waldron in New York City in 1925 to West Indian immigrants. His father was a mechanical engineer who worked on the Long Island Railroad. The family moved to Jamaica, Queens when Waldron was four. He loved jazz as a young child and spent hours listening to it on the radio. At age seven, to discourage his interest in jazz, his parents enrolled him in classical piano studies that lasted until he was 16. In 1939, he heard Coleman Hawkins' recording of "Body and Soul." Deeply inspired by it, he bought an alto saxophone (he was unable to afford a tenor horn) and taught himself to play from recordings and sheet music. He played alto for local bands that performed at dances, weddings, and bar mitzvahs, often claiming the pianist's role during solos. After graduating high school, Waldron enrolled in college but was drafted. Stationed at West Point, he was able to catch the jazz players on 52nd St. while on leave and after hours. In 1945 he was discharged and attended Queens College in New York and studied music with Karol Rathaus. It was at Queens where finally shifted all his attention to the piano. He earned a B.A. in music in 1949. Influenced by Thelonious Monk's use of space, Waldron is often compared to him but sounds nothing like him. He possessed his own distinctive chord voicings almost from the start. He freelanced in New York during the early '50s with Ike Quebec (with whom he made his recording debut), Big Nick Nicholas, and a variety of R&B-like groups. In 1956, Waldron played on several of Charles Mingus' albums, including the seminal Pithecanthropus Erectus. He worked with Lucky Millinder and Lucky Thompson at the same time he formed his own band in 1956, consisting of trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, bassist Julian Euell, and drummer Arthur Edgehill. This quintet recorded Waldron's debut leader album, Mal-1. Waldron served as Billie Holiday's regular accompanist from April 1957 until her death in July 1959, and appeared on the legendary television broadcast The Sound of Jazz. In 1957, he released Mal 2. His sidemen included Jackie McLean, Sulieman, John Coltrane, Sahib Shihab, and Bill Hardman. As Prestige Records' house pianist and recording session supervisor, he contributed many originals (including "Soul Eyes," written for Coltrane, who recorded it no less than four times) and created basic arrangements that prevented spontaneous dates from becoming overly loose jam sessions. The pianist played on a wide range of dates by artists including Teddy Charles, Jackie McLean, and Gene Ammons. After Holiday's death, he joined Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln's group. The pianist and singer co-composed the Civil Rights jazz anthem "Straight Ahead." He joined soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy on the latter's Reflections in 1958; it was the first recorded collection to consist entirely of Monk compositions. Waldron led his own groups but was also part of the Eric Dolphy-Booker Little Quintet that recorded extensively at the Five Spot in 1961. The following year, Waldron released The Quest, featuring Dolphy and Booker Ervin (and Ron Carter on cello). He wrote and arranged for early play-along records that were published by Music Minus One, and wrote scores for modern ballet and film beginning with 1963's The Cool World. While Waldron's professional life was full and varied, his personal life was spinning out of control. Long addicted to heroin, he suffered a near-fatal overdose while on-stage with Lincoln and Roach in 1963, and a complete breakdown in the aftermath. Waldron couldn't remember his own name, let alone remember how to play the piano. In the hospital he was given a spinal tap and shock treatments to bring him back. Waldron had to relearn his compositions by listening to his own recordings and actually transcribing his solos. In the process of educating himself, he created a leaner, more deliberate playing style that relied as much on repetition and blocky chords as on vamps and angular scales. He also became increasingly amenable to free jazz and ways of improvising independent of chord sequences. In 1964 Waldron composed the music for the Marcel Carne film Trois chambres à Manhattan. He emigrated to Europe the following year and cut his first solo piano album, All Alone, for Italy's G.A.C. label in 1966. He settled in Munich in 1967, the same year he composed the music for Herbert Danska's film Sweet Love, Bitter Love. Waldron occasionally returned to the U.S. for gigs and visits, but became a major force in European jazz. In 1969 he recorded the album Free at Last with a trio; the following year it became the inaugural release from Manfred Eicher's now historic ECM label in Munich. Also in 1970, Waldron cut the solo Tokyo Revisited in the studio for Victor and issued Tokyo Bound with an all-Japanese trio. 1971's Black Glory, with bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Pierre Favre, was the fourth album to appear from Enja. That year also saw First Encounter with Gary Burton, One for Lady with vocalist Kimiko Kasai, and The Call for JAPO, on which he led an electric organ quartet with Eberhard Weber on bass. In 1972, the pianist released the solo Meditations for Japan's Victor, and resumed his working relationship with Lacy on Mal Waldron with the Steve Lacy Quintet. Two 1974 ensemble recordings in particular -- Hard Talk (with Lacy and trumpeter Manfred Schoof) and Up Popped the Devil (with Reggie Workman and Billy Higgins) -- brilliantly showcased Waldron's embrace of free jazz. From 1975 on, Waldron began appearing regularly in the U.S. again, without establishing residency. He issued the solo album Jazz a Confronto 19 for Italian label Horo's illustrious series. The following year he issued two albums with McLean: the quartet offering Like Old Times with Higgins and bassist Isaso Suzuki, and Tune Up with the saxophonist's sextet. 1977's trio outing, A Touch of the Blues, offered three long-ish compositions, among them "The Search." A Waldron quintet with Lacy as a co-billed guest issued One-Upmanship on Enja that year as well. In 1978, the pianist released two important recordings: The solo Moods for Enja, that showcased the full maturity of his developed style, and the trio offering For Ursula. In 1979, Waldron issued a solo tribute to his old boss on Mingus Lives. The great bassist and composer died that February. During the early '80s, Waldron worked in studio and live with the Klaus Weiss Quintet, and with South African bassist Johnny Dyani released the little-known but important duet recording Some Jive Ass Boer. Most importantly, the pianist began touring with Lacy playing duos. The previous year's performances made it onto 1982's Snake-Out on Hat Hut, followed by Herbe De L'oubli in 1983. Still other live recordings from those dates appeared on 1986's Let's Call This. The complete concerts were released by Hat Hut in 2003 as Live at Dreher, Paris, 1981 in 2003. In June of 1982, Waldron recorded as a trio with drummer Ed Blackwell and Workman on bass. The date was issued in 1983 by Japan's Baybridge as Breaking New Ground. The same trio released Mal Waldron Plays Eric Satie in 1984. The following year, Waldron issued the solo And Alone for Sony International, and in 1986, he released Space with saxophonist Doudou Gouirand and trumpeter Michel Marre. Waldron also composed the score to Japanese director Haruki Kadokawa's film Tokyo Blues. The solo Both Sides Now appeared in 1987 and featured the pianist playing pop tunes, classical compositions, and jazz; the same year, he, Lacy, and Waldron issued Sempre Amore for Soul Note. That label also released Eric Dolphy & Booker Little Remembered Live at Sweet Basil. The recording was drawn from a gig the previous year that included bassist Richard Davis, saxophonist Donald Harrison, trumpeter Terrence Blanchard, and drummer Ed Blackwell. In 1990 Waldron moved from Munich to Brussels, Belgium. He also visited the States less often, citing then-recent restrictions against smoking in nightclubs. Nonetheless, Waldron appeared on half-a-dozen recordings that year. Among them were the gorgeous Movie Themes from France with Barney Wilen and the quartet date Vol. I: Quadrologue at Utopia with Jim Pepper. His trio offering Our Colline's a Treasure appeared in 1991, as did the trio set I'll Be Around with Enrico Rava and Tiziana Ghiglioni. That same year, he and Lacy released Hot House. 1992's Crowd Scene featured Waldron leading a quintet that included saxophonist Sonny Fortune for Soul Note, and Up and Down with Chico Freeman for Black Saint. Two years later, Waldron and vocalist Jeanne Lee teamed for the ballads collection After Hours; they reprised it on White Road Black Rain the following year with flutist Toru Tenda. In 1995, Waldron and vocalist Judy Niemack released Mingus, Monk & Mal, while Explorations ... To the Mth Degree, a live, improvised duo concert between Roach and Waldron, also appeared. In 1997, Waldron issued the live Maturity. Recorded in Japan, it offered standards, pop, and folks songs and featured his voice alongside his piano. He remained busy throughout the rest of the decade. That same year, Soul Eyes, an ensemble studio date, found the pianist in the company of Joe Henderson, Steve Coleman, Workman, Andrew Cyrille, and alternating vocalists Lincoln and Lee. Waldron kicked off the new century with vocalist Judi Silvano on Riding a Zephyr. In 2001, he and David Murray released the duo offering Silence. In September of 2002, Waldron was diagnosed with cancer. Remaining optimistic, he continued to tour and record. That year he cut One More Time with Lacy and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel. He also recorded Left Alone Revisited in a duo with saxophonist Archie Shepp. Waldron died on December 2 in Brussels, Belgium at the age of 77. Two posthumous solo offerings appeared in 2003: Maturity 2: He's My Father and an eponymous date -- both were recorded during his final year. In 2022, Resonance Records' Zev Feldman and Tompkins Square's Josh Rosenthal co-produced Searching in Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert. Taken from the stage of a jazz festival, it was sourced from the archive of Radio France with full participation from the pianist's estate. The electrifying effort showcased Waldron playing his own compositions and standards with uncanny improvisational acumen.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo


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