21stC

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.

‘Be True’ Commix (Call to mind, Metalheadz, 2007)

Contained within it all the elements of pop-perfection, the most important being a sense of anticipation and mild unfulfillment, this song has an intense following, with as you’ll see below people likening it to their JFK-moment, sharing that it is one of those songs where you remember where you were when you first heard it.

What I appreciate is the way none of the elements are overplayed, even the first drop how tempting it would have been to make it just that bit more dramatic and the sweetness of it too, of course. Everything remains simple, as it should be, just like any great pop-song, as the drums make space for the repeated vocal sample as it morphs and transforms (in a contradictory way maybe maintaining the foundations, the spine of the music).

The sample comes from Sade’s ‘I never thought that I’d see the day’ from 1988, apparently though I couldn’t hear it. Here’s the Burial remix from 2010, which is similarly unrecognisable (not so much a remix as a tiny sliver of a sample perhaps, though there are no rules for remixes, she says confidently based on nothing much at all).

Liked this piece of writing on the Commix track by Dave Jenkins published in 2017, here's part of it:  

A genuine palette cleanser for any DJ and the perfect balance of all the vital elements – weight, soul, atmosphere, instrumentation, variation, vocals and space – Be True is one of the rare breeds of tunes that you remember exactly where you were when you first heard it. It’s also the type of tune that will fit into any style set at any time and enjoy a hurricane reaction of energy, joy and appreciation whether it’s used to elevate a warm-up, capture that special moment at the end of the night or throw people sideways in a surprise double drop.

It’s been this way from the moment it dropped on dubplate in early 2007. Be True has complemented and remained relevant to drum & bass’s every stylistic twist and turn: be it as a key waymark in the perennially mutating ‘liquid’ sound that had reached a peak in the mid 2000s when this first came out; a knowing nod back to the classic genre-forming productions from the likes of Marcus Intalex, Photek and Hidden Agenda or an antidote to more recent commercial and neuro movements.

The best thing was that Be True wasn’t just a stand-alone moment that year for Commix (who, at the time comprised now-sole member George Levings and Guy Brewer) It was part of a much bigger picture: Call To Mind. The first non-Goldie/Rufige Kru related artist album to drop on Metalheadz, Call To Mind enjoys the same stature and respect as Be True does.

Jenkins links to an interview he did with George Levings in 2016, which is really interesting and worth a read as well. 

'Cursed Sleep,' Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (The Letting Go, Drag City, 2006)

I slept sweetly unpretending
That the night was always ending
She breathed lightly right next to me
And I dreamed of her inside of me

And in my dream she sang so sweetly
A melody I hope to sing
So enslaved by her sweet wonder
It cut my legs and fingered hunger

She sang my name and so engulfed

I cried and felt my legs fail
In her arms I trembled electric
Oh and she let me and she held me

Then waking she was older still
And holds my love against its will
In spell cast with her palms extended
Cursed love is never ending

Cursed eyes are never closing
Cursed arm are never closing
Cursed children never rising
And cursed me never despising

Oh I am loving always holding
While she sleeps her song enfolding
Epic song it tells of how
She and I are living now

Dawn: cursed love
Dawn: cursed love

‘Everybody’s got to learn sometime,’ cover Jean-Philippe Verdin/Readymade FC (Lol film soundtrack, EMI/Capitol, 2009)

Reasons to appreciate this cover: the voice, I’m touched by the way he sings these familiar words, this such a familiar song, the French-accented inflections on the word ‘heart’ with that emphasised final consonant (and off phrasing at times, the stretched vowel on ‘it’ as in ‘it will astound you …’ which makes it seem more genuine) and then how the music changes just over half-way to include surprising sound effects, a kind of controlled improvisation that sounds almost animal-like.

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is how so often the arrangements in soul music from the 60s/70s are eccentric, including sounds and/or riffs on sounds that serve no apparent purpose, other than to provide decoration and embellishment, as a kind of caprice. Such additions add to the overall effect, but are not essential. They either add to the sweeping orchestral impressiveness, or are touching and unexpected: amateur in the best possible way, in the true sense of the word. There is great joy to be found in this, in the revelling in freedom and abundance, via the addition of beautiful, unexpected and surprising details and turns in the music. Much the same could be said for the electronic musings that emerge in the latter half of this song that are quite different to the music that preceded it.

Verdin’s cover appeared on the soundtrack to the French film, Lol. Here is a link to the French musician/composer's site, categories: Albums & Singles, Scores & Soundtracks, Productions, arrangements, Akzidenz Grotesk, Remixes & Versions. Beck also did a cover of the song for the 2004 film soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is lovely if a little bland and lacking any particular point of difference to the original. 

The original by The Korgis came out in 1980: according to my favourite free online factopedia ‘the unique sounding instrument played after each chorus is the 18 string Chinese zither known as a guzheng’.  

Blackened Cities, Melanie De Biasio (Play It Again Sam/PIAS, 2016)  

Personnel: Backing Vocals [Backings] Bart Vincent, Double Bass – Sam Gerstmans, Drums – Dre Pallemaerts Piano – Pascal Mohy, Synth [Vintage Synths], Backing Vocals [Backings] – Pascal Paulus, Voice [Chant], Flute – Melanie De Biasio 

« Blackened cities, rumble, strangers stroll and lovers stumble »

Inspired by the urban, in every sense and three cities in particular – Detroit, Manchester, Charleroi (the Belgian city where De Biasio spent the first 18 year of her life) – Blackened Cities marked a striking departure from her popular 2014 release, No Deal.  

It is difficult to categorise Blackened Cities, as a jazz record or even – as I’ve seen online – rock, the latter being a particularly strange designation for this work: one single 25-minute track that weaves in and out, both De Biasio’s vocal-line and the various melodies. In tone/conception it reminded me, possibly and even I’m not sure, of the Dirty Three (even if the origin of their music is much more southern, earthier and folk-driven). Jazz, in all its imperfections, is a better fit, let’s say in the Miles Davis sense of the term. (It is beautiful, has extraordinary presence and speaks to the heart, whatever it is). 

This review by Thom Jurek from AllMusic covers it all for me: 

'When Melanie De Biasio released No Deal in 2014, it was embraced by jazz critics, DJs, and club audiences simultaneously. Gilles Peterson was so taken with its monochromatic ambient textures, stark arrangements, and clever improvisational intimations that he commissioned an album of remixes.

Blackened Cities is not a conventional follow-up, but an adventurous endeavor rife with risk. The release consists of a single 24-minute track that unfolds like a suite. The conservatory-trained Belgian vocalist and flutist and her longtime musical associates -- Pascal Mohy on piano, Pascal Paulus on analog synths and clavinet, and Dré Pallemaerts on drums (with guest double bassist/cellist Sam Gerstmans) -- deliver a full-scale sonic drama that crosses a wide musical expanse and evokes an encyclopedia of stylistic references, yet comes across as a totally original whole.

Its title comes from impressions of postindustrial cities De Biasio visited on her international tour: Detroit, Manchester, her native Charleroi; each has a storied past and a devastated façade, yet reflects its own unique beauty and tenacity.

Recorded live in the studio, Blackened Cities began as an unfinished three-minute idea brought in by the singer and left open for group interpretation. It starts with a whisper, a single organ-esque chord followed by a cello, before its lone guidepost enters: Pallemaerts' nearly constant, always inventive drumming -- shuffling, syncopating, circling -- is the pulse that signals each wave-like segment. (The spirit of Tony Williams on Miles Davis' In a Silent Way is redolent.)

The musical reference points are wildly diverse: Nina Simone (the cover of "I'm Gonna Leave You" on No Deal was a watermark), the piano vamp from the Doors' "Riders on the Storm," Julie Tippetts with Brian Auger, Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, Simin Tander, Annette Peacock, Portishead, The The's "Uncertain Smile," Judy Nylon, and more come and go unhurriedly.

The work gradually builds and then builds some more, without ever ratcheting up in intensity. Even at its most improvisational, Blackened Cities retains its moody, spatial, and spectral sense of groove. De Biasio delivers her lyrics in flowing extensions and deconstructions; the instrumental themes emerge from and vanish into them. Her unique phrasing employs the same maxims of silence and space that her musicians do. Even her own flute break uses an economic palette, elastically balancing harmony with breath ...

This aural travelogue's sensual cool, brooding tension, and elegiac tenderness are inseparable from one another. It is complete, but even at this length Blackened Cities ends all too soon.'

Related article: In a silent way, Miles Davis (Columbia Records, 1969)

Coda: 

‘L’amante religieuse’/’Hysm’ Émile Parisien Quartet (Au revoir porc-épic, Laborie Jazz, 2006)

 

With its light-hearted reference to one of the talismanic tracks in the history of jazz (‘porc-épic’ is ‘porcupine’ in French) this release presents itself a little deceptively, as this music is more Spiritual, deeply mood-driven and mystical, rather than anything like the eccentric, (at times) high-energy hard-edged squall and bop of Charles Mingus. 

Any of the tracks on the record deserve attention but ‘L’amante religieuse’ is particularly sweet for its mood of anticipation and the way it moves from 2’20”. 

A review of the album by Mathieu Durand, published in French in Citizen Jazz, speaks of ‘L’amante religieuse’ saying how it makes manifest the quartet's primary influences (Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Coltrane) while noting its pyramid structure, the way each musician makes their entrance, as is the style of classic jazz recordings, all against a sombre background.  

(… les mélodies se transforment de-ci, de-là en lignes sinon free du moins chaotiques - en témoigne l’antinomique « L’amante religieuse », à la construction pyramidale. A partir d’une introduction orientale où Parisien démarre seul, chaque musicien fait son entrée, de manière décalée, sur la pointe des pieds : la contrebasse, sombre, à l’archet, précède la batterie, puis un piano souvent en arpèges plus qu’en accord. Le morceau palpite jusqu’à se clore sur une sortie successive des instruments). 

Appropriately for music carrying such a title this is music for contemplation, music that carries within it some call towards a non-material value. 

And yet as Durand notes the titles are often ‘humorous’ even including a reference to Homer Simpson; he welcomes this as a change within the often too-serious milieu of contemporary jazz. Speaking about another track ‘Le clown tueur de la fête foraine’ he notes that the Émile Parisien Quartet is not looking to make listeners laugh, or think, ‘only to play’. 

To quote Durand once more, he writes how ‘Hysm’ recalls film sound-tracks, and the ‘nostalgic moods’ of McCoy Tyner when he accompanied Coltrane to end with another reference to J.C. saying how the entire album would appeal to those who admire the work of the saxophonist.  

Coda : 

Madchillainy, Sadhugold (original format: digital download via Bandcamp, 2017)

Revisiting, revising returning to the source, this riff on the Madlib/MF DOOM collaboration, Madvillainy that received much acclaim on its 2004 release (even from magazines that don’t normally report on hip-hop, as the wik-précis explains, rather breathlessly). 

My favourite detail in terms of the background: the fact that the 'record contract' with Stones Throw was apparently signed on a paper plate.

Here is the artist's self-description, provided by Sadhugold:


'Sadhugold, 25, from Philadelphia, been producing for about 10 years now, started with looping "Certainly" by Erykah Badu on Audacity lol. My major influences consist of Madlib, Danger Mouse, Alchemist, Lord Finesse, RZA. I originally started with visual art and cartooning, so I plan to one day animate visuals for my music.'

Sadhugold is part of another circle of artists (Mach-Hommy most notably, but also Fly Anakin, CRIMEAPPLE, Estee Nack, Tha God Fahim, Al.Divino) that resembles the Massachusetts line-up referred to previously, producing and creating music together and thereby forming a new centre (no need to speak of margins).

This release immediately appealed to me when I heard it soon after it came out in September. Only one track is now publicly available, 'Beginning of the Rainbow' via Bandcamp where it's available for purchase for ‘$7.77 or more.’ Here's my response to the song while listening to it in real time, and no I'm not making any claims for poetry: 'thump, swirl, internal dynamics, sloshing beat, meditative complexity … warmth/intensity.’

The YT video  of Madchillainy was quickly taken down. Sadhugold explained that he hadn't put it up. His sales took a ‘serious turn’ after some unknown poster did so he got his 'team' to remove it. But when after a period of time I returned to his email to listen to the links he'd sent through, they were no longer viable. From memory then, the rest of the release is of similar worth. Its defining quality is its ‘warmth/intensity.’  It has real verve, calming, but intense at the same time; a less-jaded, more melodic, much sweeter, more youthful, less pinned-out Metal Machine Music (maybe) :

The act of returning to a previous work and re-interpreting it as a way of showing respect and suggesting kinship has broader significance, of course and is a central part of Black musical traditions: hip-hop, jazz, dub. By chance around the same time, I read this old interview from 2012 with Yasiin Bey in HYPEBEAST, link no longer operational, that referred to this and put it in context.      

What can we expect from your new series Top 40 Underdogs and what inspired it?


I am doing this for the culture. The tradition, taking someone’s song and making your version out of it, is not new to hip-hop. It is similar to dancehall music, where there is one rhythm and many artists offer their interpretation of it. Covering songs is certainly in the DNA of the culture. 50 Cent, as a matter of fact, built his name in New York for awhile doing just that. I also like the community mind aspect of it that it belongs to all of us. It basically gives and extends the life of our culture, our rhythm. Thus, this series is something that comes quite natural for me to do. I’ve done it before. Just look at “Children’s Story,” or even my version of JAY-Z’s “Takeover” in 2004. It is something that is really fun to do, you know, giving different perspectives on a familiar piece. 

To learn more about Sadhugold, here's a great interview he did with Tyron de Harlem (Casa de Lowery). In it he speaks about his reworking of some freestyles by Meek Mill - a coincidence that LA producer  Knxledge put out a similar tape around the same time for possibly similar reasons; I thought this section of his reply on the Meek Mill project was interesting:    

'The first few jawns, honestly ... I just really liked those raw loops. All of the loops that you heard on those tapes were loops that I used to listen to continuously, over and over and over again. And it never occurred to me to put acapellas on it because they’re just loops and not full beats but when I put the acapellas on them sh*ts, the sound that came out of that was different than any flip I’d ever done. It was kinda flat but not in a bad way. It was flat like time space continuum and it pulled out different nuances in his flows that I was already so familiar with that I never really like peeped. And it was just crazy to hear that kind of delivery on my medium and sh*t, something that I listen to all the time.' 

'It was kinda flat but not in a bad way ...' 

Time Machine, Alps Cru (F5 Records, 2017)

Last year when doing my typically distracted, stopping and starting like a retro-instrumental, trawl online seeking out music that might be of interest/something to write on (key words ‘rare, demo, live recordings’), I came across the, to me, little-known hip-hop group from the 90s, Alps Cru.

I wrote about them last October: 'Avalanche' & instrumental, Alps Cru (12" 1997/re-release, The Relevant 2014)

Group-member, Shorty Live (Brank Napp Negashi) later got in touch and told me that Alps Cru was releasing a new/old EP, Time Machine see above. Here’s some info on the group and the project that he sent through:     

'In 2007 DJ Alejan received an email from Bibow, a German blogger, asking if he had any extra copies of the Unknown EP, a record Alejan released in 1994 with his hip-hop group, Concept of Alps (now Alps Cru). Alejan was surprised to learn the release, which was limited to 100 vinyl copies, was still being discovered by new listeners. Alejan’s surprise quickly turned to shock when Bibow explained the record commanded up to $1500 per copy and was considered a holy grail among hip-hop vinyl collectors. 

Alejan, who is from St. Louis, started the group with his roommate P Da Wicked while they were students at Xavier University in New Orleans. P was from New Jersey and had been down with YZ’s ESD Posse before heading to college. They followed up the Unknown EP with the “Intensity” 12" single in 1995, which had spins on various underground hip-hop radio shows, including the legendary Stretch and Bobbito show.

Before heading into the studio to record their next single, the group added Shorty Live, a Brooklyn native, whom they had met through a mutual friend. P and Shorty’s chemistry was immediately apparent, and the result was the “Just Can’t Explain” 12” in 1996. After being passed over by Matty C for the Source’s Unsigned Hype column and coming close to being signed to Payday Records, the group parted ways.

In the intervening years Alejan returned to St. Louis and P. relocated to Georgia. Both fell out of contact with Shortly Live for more than a decade. They reconnected in 2009 after discovering the renewed interest in their music. Due to a high demand from worldwide fans, the group re-released some of their original recordings along with unreleased tracks from their vaults. 

In 2014 the group returned to the studio to record new material for the first time since 1997 along with a guest appearance from Sadat X from Brand Nubian. International cult fan favourites Alps Cru are now back with the Time Machine EP, which features El Da Sensei of the Artifacts on the title track. The EP is available digitally and on vinyl through F5 Records.'

You can check out Brank Napp Negashi's page at www.unityneverfails.com

Stand out song for me is ‘Mind like Water’ – produced by Dutch beat-maker, Lost Perfection - for its odd kind of anti-intro that cuts into a completely different feel of music with its drive and kicking momentum, though the very very simple instrumentals are pretty cool also, as is the opening track that provides the EP’s title, Time Machine and operates as an open declaration as to why hip-hop still has a hold on them.