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
Despite how rewarding his body of work is, he still very much
remains a musicians 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.
Mals next prime gig was a two year stint with Charles
Minguss Jazz Workshop. At this point, Mingus was already exploring the
extended suite-like forms that showed him to be heir apparent to Duke
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 Minguss 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 Minguss
extended compositions, describing mans 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 Rachmaninovs Prelude in C
Sharp. A further classical connection is made when Mal conjures up motifs
of Debussys 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
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
Quartets 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
Coltranes Africa/Brass Sessions (Impulse!, 1961) which was
orchestrated by Eric Dolphy and McCoy Tyner.
Although Bookers 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 bands 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 Hamiltons 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.
Erics 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
News of Erics 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
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
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 Taylors 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 Monks music was
little known and rarely covered; the perfect new soil from which this
new instrument could sprout. Reflections (Prestige, 1958)
was Steves 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 Monks Big Band/Quartet (Columbia, 1963).
Both Mal and Steve would remain not only Monks 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 generations 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
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 Daviss 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 peoples 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.
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 Aebis 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
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 Waldrons 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 Mals 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 its 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
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
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
Maxwell will return with more adventures in sound