Mal Waldron ‘Left Alone’ (Mal Live 4 to 1, Philips/Japan, 1971; Left Alone ‘86, Paddle Wheel, 1986; w/ Archie Shepp, Left Alone Revisited, Enja Records, 2002) & Abbey Lincoln

Personnel: piano, Mal Waldron, alto saxophone, Kohsuke Mine, bass, Isao Suzuki and drums Yoshiyuki Nakamura

While at Prestige Mal Waldron estimated he wrote up to 400 compositions, the most famous being ‘Left Alone’ written for Billie Holiday and the John Coltrane destined ‘Soul Eyes’. First recorded by Coltrane for his Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors (1957), the musician loved the piece that would become of the genre's classic songs so much he recorded it three times with different ensembles.

‘Left alone’ became known as Waldron’s ‘signature tune’, even though the lyrics were written by Billie Holiday. Holiday never released her version; it was one of the seven songs she wrote but never recorded, as she said she was meant to but would 'always forget the damned sheet music.' This absence is deeply poignant and powerful. The fact that there is no record of her singing something so indelibly hers, transforms her absence into a presence in an almost ghost-like way. With this in mind; it is striking how often Waldron recorded versions of songs from Holiday's repertoire throughout his his career. It's as if he were continually seeking out some connection with her.

As heard in the interview extract with Waldron included at the bottom of this piece their bond was a tender one, he likened their relationship to one of brother and sister. It is affecting to hear him speak of Billie Holiday in this way, especially when he remembers her as relaxed and warm (she was the godmother of his child). Perhaps especially because Holiday is so often represented and remembered in a fashion that emphasises the brutal nature of the circumstances of her death and difficult life and by so doing erases her complexity as a woman and artist. Waldron speaks of how Holiday taught him to value words, in themselves, and how this shaped his phrasing as a musician.

Here’s Waldron’s recollection of how the song was written/composed, taken from the 2001 Ted Panken interview:

'In the previous set, we heard Mal Waldron with two great divas of the generation that grew up listening to Billie Holiday.  Mal Waldron played for several years with Billie Holiday.  I wonder if you can talk about how that happened and address the experience.

It was really an accident.  Because her pianist… She was working in Philadelphia, and her pianist just conked out, he couldn’t function any more.  So she needed the pianist.  So she asked Bill Duffy, who had written the book with her, to find a pianist, and Bill asked his wife, Millie Duffy, if she knew any musicians, and Millie asked Julian Euell, who was one of her friends, and Julian Euell asked me, and I said “The buck stops here.”  I got on a train and went there.  So it was an accident, but it was a beautiful accident for me.

Were you always a fan of her music?

Oh yes, I was a fan of her music, but I had never played it.  But I got a crash course!

And “Left Alone” was written for her?

Yes.  She wrote the words and I wrote the melody.  We were on a plane going from New York to San Francisco.  It took more time than it does now because they were propeller planes.  She just wanted to write tune about her life, so she wrote those lyrics, and I wrote the melody.  By the time we got off the plane, it was finished.

What was she like with the band?

She was very relaxed.  In fact, she didn’t make rehearsals.  She didn’t like to make rehearsals.  She just came on and did it.  So I had to rehearse the band!' 

Here is the Abbey Lincoln version of 'Left Alone' from 1961, recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Mal Waldron and Max Roach for her album Straight Ahead. It’s an extraordinary performance by Lincoln, her bold style perfectly suits the lyricism's direct nature. The fact that she sings it so straight makes it all seem even more tragic. She sings the lines as if recounting something factual, a weather report or something of that kind.

Lincoln's interpretation appeals to me because it feels honest, real. Something I really dislike in singers is the way they over-dramatise tragic material, or do something stagey (slow it down, stretch words or whisper parts of it, pause for drama etc). Such mannerisms only emphasise their lack of knowledge. When I first heard the Abbey Lincoln interpretation of this song I thought it was a bit strange, the forthright tone of it all and the distance (I was imagining how Billie Holiday might have sung it, how she might have used her trademark brittle elongation of words and sounds).

Then I came to really love it for those same reasons. As anyone who has heard someone speak like this of life, or love – or heard themselves perhaps speak like this – this is how such words are said, without self-pity or self-doubt. They are said as a statement of fact external to the speaker. Such words are a lament of the resigned, the broken. Then if you listen closely there are gradations in Lincoln’s performance, especially in this part, which is repeated:

Maybe fate has let him pass me by
Or perhaps we'll meet before I die
Hearts will open, but until then

I'm left alone, all alone

Something about the way she sings ‘perhaps’ as if there might be space for doubt is extremely touching. Waldron said that Billie Holiday wanted to write something of 'the story of her life.’ The fact that this song remains as her last testament is deeply sad.

Musically it’s a beautiful performance by the group: the Coleman Hawkins solo is moving, Waldron’s presence is so muted it can hardly be heard and I particularly like the way the music comes together, offering some kind of grounding or foundation for Lincoln to sing her truth, as she sees it. The music in terms of its performance feels deeply empathetic to me.

The live performance in Japan with Waldron with Kohsuke Mine (alto saxophone) Isao Suzuki (bass) and Yoshiyuki Nakamura (drums) is also very beautiful, a technically flawless performance, where Mal Waldron’s piano solo begins ever so gently, at points a a repetition of single notes. It is not so different from the first Waldron recording of the song from 1959 with Jackie McLean. The album description has it that Waldron is at the piano playing ‘the moods of Billie Holiday.’ Both performances have the same clarity, lacking perhaps the expression of something deeply felt, defined by a certain control.

Later performances, for example this one from 1986, when Waldron reunites with Jackie McLean and then in the one from the final year of his life, recorded with Archie Shepp are more emotional in the way they show a more expressive side of the pianist (the second one especially).

My favourite, along with the 1971 performance in Japan is this version Waldron recorded in February 2002, the year of his death (he passed away at the age of 77 the following December in Brussels). I understand that Archie Shepp’s sense of drama as a performer might not be to everyone’s taste, especially when compared with the other more formal renditions, but I always appreciate it. You sense something of his spirit when he plays. This quality I think encouraged Waldron to become more expressive as well, more lyrical, more present in his final performance of the song that defined his career.

Here is the interview where Mal Waldron speaks of what he learnt from Billie Holiday, the context of this, his most famous song which ended up becoming a dedication to the late artist throughout Waldron's professional life.

‘Why did you do it’ Margaret Singana (Tribal Fence, Casablanca, 1977)

This is one of the most covered songs, originally by UK white funk merchants Stretch released on their 1975 album Street Life. Some of the artists include Sam and Dave, offering up a perfect soul-inflected disco groove (covering all the elements, strings & horns included natch)

A 2011 article in the Guardian on the Stretch original states that ‘lyrically, it comes close (…), in its reproachful fury to Dylan’s scabrous masterpiece, ‘Positively 4th Street.’ To then add, ‘still more surprisingly, it was the rarest of birds: a work of lasting genius from a mid-70s white funk band.’

Thinking about the lyrics then, they are easily what make the song for me. Something about their ambiguity comes through the version by the South African singer, Margaret Singana, who was known as ‘Lady Africa’ (here’s some info on her background, career and discography). The uncertain perspective comes from the central premise of who was ‘wronged’ (to use an old-fashioned word) and how.

Singana states that she was was the one who was hurt, as she sings ‘the damage is much deeper than you’ll ever see/Hit me like a hammer to my head/I wonder were you pushed or were you led?’ This makes you think she is a cheated-on partner, but later this becomes less clear as the gender of the third party to her betrayal is a man not a woman:

My friends they listen to the things I say
They listen and they hear more everyday
But I know they never understand it
Because it was no accident you planned it

Why did you do it? Why did you do that thing to me?
Why did you do it? Why did you do that thing to me?
The only one who knows the truth
Man it's him me and you

The only one who knows the truth/Man it's him, me and you

Within the canon of soul/R&B and funk/disco this perspective is truly original. Most of the time it’s a woman or man singing about how she/he discovered her partner with another and works through how they will react (disco/funk songs often take another path, frequently riffing on notions of attraction and attractiveness). This performance feels deeper, more primal linked to a profound betrayal.

Singana's rendition has a remarkable internal quality to it, especially in the way she under-sings, keeping it low in a way that is extremely powerful. She is not singing out of her outrage as most singers do when covering the song, basing it on shock to the ego (how could you do it to me?) but invokes something else. The nature of the blow is so hard, so unexpected that it affects her entire sense of self.

Yet this betrayal is never spelled-out and laid out for our edification and entertainment - Singana's performance is private, secretive. Reinforcing this impression, the 10 seconds from around 2'08" when the music goes quiet is pure brilliance.

Here’s a live performance of Singana singing her 80s hit, ‘Hamba Bekhile’ (We are Growing) which was the theme song for the TV series Shaka Zulu and in a surprising quirk of history reached the top of the charts in … Holland. 

‘Getting Nowhere Fast’/’Soul Strut,’ single, Floyd Smith (Dakar Records, 1968)

What a phenomenal single from Floyd ‘Guitar’ Smith. The contrast between the perfect on every level lament speaking of love and loss on side a) and the boss groove – it’s bossy too – of side two is something of real note. It’s hard to think of other releases as varied as this.

When doing some research on Floyd Smith, the fact that he had a career spanning two very different genres and sharply contrasting musical moments made me doubt whether it was in fact the same person: I’m still not completely confident that it is (the same man).

How was it possible that the same man who met and played with Django Reinhardt in Paris during the Second World war ended up recording 70s soul/disco greats (and even won the heart of one)? To quote da wik: 

In the 1970s, Smith moved into writing songs and record production, working with Dakar/Brunswick Records in Chicago, for which he recorded a few singles. He produced two albums with R&B star, Loleatta Holloway for Aware Records of Atlanta, as well as two (one completed, but un-issued when the label folded) with John Edwards, who later became lead singer of the Detroit Spinners. He produced two Top 10 R&B hits on Aware with Edwards (“Careful Man”, No. 8 in 1974) and Holloway (“Cry To Me”, No. 10 in 1975). In the late 1970s, he produced tracks on several albums with Loleatta Holloway for Gold Mine/Salsoul Records. He managed the former gospel singer and later married her.

Here’s a maybe too intense disco song from Smith, 1975.

Check out this strong interview with Smith by Jas Obrecht (former editor of Guitar Player and the founding editor of Pure Guitar magazine), published on his site, date unknown.  

‘Color Blind,’ single Maze, feat. Frankie Beverly (Capitol Records, 1977) two versions, plus live performance of Raw Soul

Could have selected any number of great songs by Frankie Beverly in his various groups (Maze, Raw Soul) but chose this 1977 version of ‘Color Blind’ for the depth of the recording, the no-space nature between the elements and its simplicity. The other side of the single was ‘While I’m alone’

Here's the earlier version, which follows the other funk path of the big-band sound and interests me a lot less.

Below the video on YouTube, there's a nice comment from Michael Burton Sr (such comments are one of the best things about YouTube) :

'As the original Stage Manager of Maze featuring Frankie Beverly 1975 - 1978, I'm always excited to find a rare oldie of the Guys, and no exception with this track with my best friend McKinley "BUG" Williams (R.I.P.) singing. Color Blind said it then, and still makes a statement today, it was a real story in 1971 when this was recorded. Some things just never get old.'

Some info on Frankie Beverly now, just love the names of these groups: this in itself indicates an earlier innocence (something that continues in contemporary rap/hip-hop culture with the MC names that are often impossible to pronounce and/or made up of bizarre capitalizations, it's as if the artists are both playing and constructing barriers, ie to say their name you need to have heard it first).

As a teenager (Frankie Beverly) formed The Blenders, a short-lived a cappella, doo-wop group that were influenced by The Dells, The Moonglows, and The Del Vikings. After that outfit dissolved, he founded The Butlers (subsequently Frankie Beverly and the Butlers), which would be the first group he recorded with in 1963. In 1967, he cut “If that’s what you wanted”, which became a northern soul standard. As time passed, they caught the attention of the record producer Kenny Gamble, who eventually released recordings by the group.

It turned out that music performed by The Butlers did not fit into the “Philly Sound”, and after some heavy touring, the group relocated to California. The unit was re-christened as Raw Soul and caught the attention of a sister-in-law to Marvin Gaye. Gaye featured them as an opening act at his shows, and also convinced Beverly to change the band’s name to Maze.

To close the story, I'll let Frankie Beverly’s lyrics have the final word:

'I've often heard that white is right
You better believe black is alright too
So is blue and green and yellow
What difference should it make to you

These ties we got on us just ain't too hip
I know you got your thing and I've got mine
We've been judging people by colors
Maybe we should all be color blind

What I want to know is
What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony
What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony

There's a saying you can't judge a book by it's cover
What are we doing but just that
We've been judging people by color
Love ain't got no color that's a fact

What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony
What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony'

Really like this live performance at by Raw Soul (Recorded Live: 2/15/1975, Winterland, San Francisco, CA) – everything everything everything.

'I want to be with you,' Gregory Andre And Two Plus Three, single (Sea Side/G.M.C. Records, 1978)

The most notable piece of information or commentary about this little gem seems to be that the group tried to usher in some false pretences to increase their commercial success. 'Recorded in Kansas City on G.M.C. Records,' as the note below the video states, 'in an attempt to bolster sales, producer George Chambers used his brother's San Diego address on the record.' To add, 'The plan didn't work.'

With its cosmic-sounds at the start (that return at the end) you can see why the song received the adjective psychedelic. Funk and soul also make sense but the most interesting for me is the disco appellation. Around 2’30” the song that had until then been a loose soul-inflected groove enacts the exposed percussion style that typifies a disco song, but the rest of the band plays on (albeit more subtly). It’s a fresh-take on the classic disco tic of allowing the drums, or bass take the floor by themselves as the other instruments look on, so to speak.

There’s lots to like about this song that seems barely remembered 40 years on, the clapping beat/the ‘hey!’ the singer's self-assurance and verve and the sweet and simple lyrics.

'The Murda Show' Spice 1, feat. MC Eiht (187 He Wrote, Jive Records, 1993) plus instrumental

Without wanting to sound too reachy or even appropriating, this is so perfect in its realisation it could be pop music, with all the 'picidy-pop' and 't-t-tech' and the final part that becomes a kind of extravagant dancehall styling. Of course, the subject matter, but the presentation makes that fade somehow. Anyway to return to where I started, let's leave certain spaces in this appreciation, for good or ill. Here's the instrumental, more bass-driven but still carried by the romance of the strings

Below the YouTube video there's a nice comment from the poster, responding to the question as to why he put it up, 'It's incredibly nostalgic, even though I was born a decade after this song was released. I find it unique compared to other hip-hop beats at the time, and it gives a feeling of success and greatness, like something you'd play after reaching success in music.'  

‘Compton Bomb’ MC Eiht (We Come Strapped, Epic Street Records, 1994)/‘Def Wish 2’ by Compton’s Most Wanted (Epic, 1992)* plus instrumentals, Gravediggaz and more

Now to turn some attention to MC Eiht’s ‘Compton Bomb,’ a track from his 1994 album We Come Strapped that according to online info was a massive success, reaching number 1 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart (number 5 on the Billboard 500) that year and was produced by MC Eiht, DJ Slip and Rick Rock.

What is immediately striking about this song, and MC Eiht's music in general is its lyricism: the emphasis on the strings and keys. This isn’t a pulsating funk arrangement, not in the classic  sense where the bass/drums are everything and extravagant guitar flourishes add garnish, but instead something that reminds me of Philadelphia soul and then later disco. Arguably the distinguishing feature of these beats is their 'song-nature' the way the instruments are used to highlight and emphasise, following quite traditional formulas.

Unlike other producers working at the time - see my later comment on Prince Paul/Gravediggaz - but any other could be used here as a point of contrast, the interest is not so much on the quality of sounds, as samples, in a way that marks a continuum with jazz, but the songs themselves as a whole. This intrigues me, especially since the popular image of this kind of hip-hop is all macho testosterone gyrating. When I first noticed the repeated use of strings and harmony in this music it came as a surprise.        

There is a line connecting this work by MC Eiht with ‘California Soul’ by Marlena Shaw from 1969, with the abundance of the strings and striving for a quality of deep-Romance and grandeur, the bass line beneath it all. This music is filled with space, sunlight (no surprises) and the sense of no-limits creativity.

To understand how 'Compton Bomb’ is so different, or so redolent of the West Coast scene then, let's compare it to another track recorded that year: the Gravediggaz ‘Pass the Shovel’. The Gravediggaz track, which was only included on the European releases of 6 Feet Deep, makes its musical roots clear, marking out a point of continuum between the New York DJ culture, emanating from the pure minimal and supremely elegant musical control of Fred Wesley and the J.Bs, from all the late 70s/early 80s rappers and then made manifest in Public Enemy. 

According to WhoSampled the Prince Paul-produced track leans heavily on 60s/70s artists - Bob James, Rufus Thomas - but also samples a track from the early rap group The Boogie Boys from 1981 and the comedian Richard Pryor. The tone of this music is hard-edged, contained and highly disciplined (this is why I link it with Fred Wesley/Public Enemy, as this is something I associate with their music), but it is also light-hearted.

The surprising and strange combination of lyrical and conceptual darkness and the excessive 'motion picture soundtrack' whirling, soaring strings and sweetly melodic keys you find on 'Compton Bomb' might come from another planet. MC Eiht's earlier release with Compton's Most Wanted, 'Def Wish 2' offers an interesting contrast with the Gravediggaz release:

The tracks map a similar locale, even if ‘Def Wish 2’ lacks the jokiness of the New Yorkers, with RZA riffing lines like: ‘When I come through with the shovel don’t puzzle/Then I’m out the trouble, motherfuckin’ trouble/So like Barney Rubble, back to the gravel pit ...’ and later aligning a play on ‘phantom of the opera’ with binoculars and ‘Figaro/Figaro’ with a ‘pocket full of dough.’ The CMW release, meanwhile, begins with a sample from Goodfellas stating how 'murder was the only way that everybody stayed in line.' 

‘Def Wish 2’ is hard to watch, unsettling all these years on. There’s not much humour to be found here. It’s going for the jugular, as much as the gut, but there’s a kind of complexity linked to the way the music deepens at points, or the elements merge unexpectedly (see the way the scratching gives way to the bass just before one minute in) and the groove is maintained throughout. Here's the instrumental: 

Some final words on MC Eiht's lyrical style. One thing that interests me is the way his rapping manifests an obvious effort, it often sounds like he's struggling a bit (it's not smooth despite the music, despite the stance). Moreover, his style is marked by an epic theatricality, as an MC he is extremely affected with all the stop-start for emphasis, scatting more than rapping at points, all in his trademark syncopated delivery.

Notice, for example, the super-stagey emphasis at the end of the final two lines in this part of the verse, just before the strings come in:

Makin' ni**s lock up they low-rider switches uh
Step aside as I bail on my ride
Too close on my jock get bucked with the Glock
The whole world turns as I bail in/ the/ room
Ni**s prepare to get slapped with/ the/ boom

At some points MC Eiht uses this technique to real effect, echoing core sounds, while bringing in some humour because of his delivery style (see the rhyme on ‘waitress/hate this’ or the later exaggerated, stretched ‘stop’ and ‘pop’). These effects create distance between the MC and what he's speaking about, thereby emphasising his style rather than his investment. This dilutes criticism about the rap glorifying violence, as throughout he is drawing attention to the fact that his telling of the tale is not natural, it is manufactured, performed - a kind of theatre. 

'Compton Bomb' ends on a note of real grace, exposed bass, keys, drums and strings, just like a Donna Summer hit circa 1977, though with less brass.

Coda:

*Re the release date info for MC Eiht's 'Def Wish 2,' I've come across three different dates/record companies online and don't know which is correct, please let me know if this isn't. This is an example of how basic information on rap/hip-hop artists (and often Black musicians, in general) is not available online. There's a lot of criticism about the poor standard of hip-hop criticism, much of it justified, I wonder if not being able to access reliable information might be part of the reason for it.   

‘Streiht Up Menace’ MC Eiht (Menace II Society, soundtrack, Jive Records, 1993) plus instrumental/remix

Been hesitating about writing on this for a while, fully aware of the culture-clash between me and it and wondering how to frame it as a writer: not wanting to paraphrase something that has no connection with my life and pretending I get it  (I hate that), especially as what makes it special is the delivery, how it’s said. No that doesn’t make any sense, nor does completely side-stepping the lyrical content, which is so apt/smart. Neither does trying to give a history lesson on the who and the what etc. So here’s a lyric video in black and white.

Speaking honestly though what really appeals to me most about this track is the music. When offering an artist a compliment people always go on about hip-hop as if we as listeners don’t have bodies, only heads on necks, but this is so impressive because of the way it moves: its essential swing and construction, it’s a perfect beat. I only know the very bare bones about how it was made that it was produced by DJ Slip, QDIII and MC Eiht himself. Apparently it samples Compton’s Most Wanted’s ‘Growin’ Up In the Hood’ from 1991. 

Why not then listen to the instrumental to appreciate this music, there’s nothing online to learn more about it so I’ll leave this undeveloped.

For me what’s interesting about this music is the way it’s so distinctive: sure, there is that bass line and the interaction with all the elements, making it a simplified/poppy version of funk, but the clippy guitar-line, for example, could come from the Caribbean when it briefly appears.

Here’s a remix and an interview with MC Eiht from 1997.