'It's part of my personality to be very economical with what I have and to use it in all variations before I move to the next set of notes.'
Pareles, Jon (September 10, 1982) "Pop/Jazz: Mal Waldron, Expatriate, Brings Quintet to Town" The New York Times
Mal Waldron who first gained fame for his role as in house pianist/composer at Prestige Records and as Billie Holiday’s accompanist (from 1957 until her death in 1959) had a parallel career of great success in Europe as well as a close personal/professional connection with Japan.
Much attention has been given to the Paris connection for Black American jazz musicians, but less to their links to other European centres; Waldron moved to Munich in 1967 (where he helped launch the ECM label and appeared on its first release) before moving to Brussels in the 90s. Wiks describes Waldron’s technique that developed during his European residence:
'From the time he moved to Europe, Waldron played mostly in a free style, while being able to play in a more traditional style when the audience or situation required it. He used thick chords in the lower bass register; his emphasis on weight, texture and frequent repetition of a single and simple motif as opposed to linear and melodic improvisation gave a heavy and dark color to his sound. One facet of his playing was, according to The Penguin Guide to Jazz, 'likened to American minimalism: a slow accretion of almost subliminal harmonic and rhythmic shifts steadily pile up until the music seems ready to overbalance.'
While the story of the Japanese embrace, reinvention and love for jazz that manifests not only via collaborations such as this, but also the way Japanese labels so often put out the less-known jazz releases throughout the 70s and beyond is also under-celebrated, it seems to me.
Waldron recorded this album with a group of acclaimed Japanese musicians (bassist Isao Suzuki, for example, is known in Japan as the “Jazz Godfather” and when living in New York, 1969-1971 recorded with Ron Carter, Paul Desmond, Charles Kelly and Thelonious Monk and was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers), sitting in for their usual pianist.
As this anonymous review from Jazz Music Archives notes, what shines through in the recording, is the ease with which Waldron melds with the group, perhaps reflecting his long training as a support person to other artists. (Some claim that he is the greatest jazz piano accompanist). Asked what makes an ideal bassist/drummer in a 2001 Ted Panken interview Waldron replied: 'They listen and they try to adapt to what you’re doing. That’s all you need, is somebody to listen and to adapt to what you’re doing. Be like shadows.'
Here’s the entire Jazz Music Archives review, which is very good so I’ll reproduce it in full here:
Whether the first piece written by Waldron, ‘Reminicent Suite: Dig it Deep Down, Baby/ Echoes/Once More With Feeling’ or the second ‘Black Forest’ (by Terumasa Hino) appeal more to you depends on how your jazz preferences are set; I love both. The suite follows a traditional set-up of each musician having a solo, but its genius lies in the way the ‘supporting’ musicians create the environment for them to do so, most notably Waldron himself. His performance is marked by wonderful modesty and understatement (at one point he disappears entirely). His solo appears to be so simple, at one point made up of the repetition of single notes.
Waldron suffered a severe breakdown in 1963, when he lost the capacity to play the piano. Before his breakdown, Waldron played in a lyrical way, but after it, he said that 'I couldn't find that lyricism inside myself any more, so I became a very angular player' (in a way, it is said, that resembled Thelonious Monk's performance style and composition).
This ‘angular’ style can be felt in this work, yet it’s not cold and unfeeling. The combination of the abstract and the emotional in Waldron’s playing might be his lasting achievement. The following analysis comes from Adam Shatz’s excellent essay ‘Free At Last: Mal Waldron’s Ecstatic Minimalism’ published in The Nation last year:
'Waldron’s style is invariably described as “brooding”—almost all of his pieces are in a minor key—but it could also be described as analytical. Most jazz pianists work to create an effect of outward motion when they improvise. Swing, after all, is a musical analogue of dance, and its aim is to make the body more expansive and supple. Waldron’s music appears to work in nearly the opposite direction, burrowing ever more deeply into its materials: He seems to be on an inward journey. In “The Blues Suite,” for example, the slow, winding song that takes up more than a third of Meditations, there’s an extraordinary moment where Waldron plays a descending figure in the lower registers of the piano; as it recedes, a sample from the Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” rises in its wake, suggesting a shadowy recollection, or the previously erased layer of a palimpsest.
Waldron “played every piece as if he were X-raying it,” as Edward Said once observed of Glenn Gould. He turned to music as a kind of mental exercise, a way of figuring out what he thought; his pieces were almost all “meditations.” “I want to be able to see what I am doing,” he explained, “and in order to be very clear in my mind where I am going I have to repeat it.” His search for what he called the “one note that goes for the entire piece” gives his music an almost uniquely obsessive sense of propulsion—the feeling of being in a trance.'
In the Ted Panken interview he shared how he was classically trained as were most of the jazz musicians from his era and that much of his performance derived from that legacy and Bach in particular. Here is another extract from the interview:
Talk about your daily life in ’54-’55-’56-’57.
Well, my life was consisting of thinking about the melodies in the daytime, writing them at night, and then recording them the next day.
What did creating the Mal Waldron style entail? A more orchestral approach to the piano? A more compositional approach?
Well, it entailed not thinking of changes as changes, but thinking of changes as sounds, so that a cluster would do for a change or something like that, just a group of notes — not thinking of a tonal concept, just a group of notes would be an impetus for soloing on.
To read more about jazz, follow the tags in the Blog and In Praise of sections.