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.

Ballads for Two, Chet Baker & Wolfgang Lackerschmid (In-akustik/Inak,1986) plus live performance & interview  

1979 was an important year for Chet Baker, a period of great activity and development. Central to this were his recordings with German jazz musician/bandleader/composer Wolfgang Lackerschmid, best known for his work as a vibraphonist, but he also played other percussion instruments.

Ballads for Two, while continuing a longstanding jazz tradition of pairing two notable artists is a curious release, surprising even for Baker whose late work showed an impressive range and interest in experimentation. Such creativity also marked his earliest recordings, certainly. But the sheer virtuosity, the lyricism of Baker’s playing (and undoubtedly his pin-up good looks) has often come to obscure this side of his work.

Baker/Lackerschmid recorded two albums together in 1979: Ballads for Two and Baker/Lackerschmid with a band, guitarist Larry Coryell, bassist Buster Williams and Tony Williams on drums. Here's a review on Ballads for Two by Bob Rusch:  

'This was a record not so much of rhythm as of tonal coloring, pitch and reverberation. This was also an avant-garde Chet Baker, without gimmicks, just meeting an interest to expand and further develop: to invent, expand, create. This was also very beautiful creativity; art for art's sake. Wolfgang Lackerschmid played vibes in a manner owing itself more to Red Norvo and Gary Burton than Milt Jackson, and proved himself to be a creator and artist in his ebb and flow with the trumpeter. Bravos for both artists.'

This was a record not so much of rhythm as of tonal coloring, pitch and reverberation.

‘Dessert’ is a marvel in its expression of tender, difficult to express emotion and the way the music upsets our expectations

as is the cover of the standard, ‘You don’t know what love is’ with its deep vulnerability and imperfection. To get a sense of this, compare it to the classic rendition by Baker from the 1950s. Here’s a live performance that one listener claims was recorded in Norway, with this line-up: Chet Baker (tp) - Wolfgang Lackerschmid (vib) - Michel Graillier (p) - Jean-Louis Rassinfosse (b). 

And an interview from around the same time where Baker speaks in Italian about his struggles with heroin addiction and his music (with English subtitles).  

Versions: ‘She’s my witch’ Kip Tyler (Ebb, 1958)

Following the contemporary tic of mentioning who or what brought a listener to a particular piece of music, for many this comes with a nice kind of provenance (to slightly misuse a word) – of that great rangy showman, Lux Interior of The Cramps.  

(Memory of one of my first live music experiences seeing The Cramps do their thing in a long-gone venue; all velvet curtains, with tassels, as Lux rattled and rolled on the stage and Ivy never smiled).

The recording of this track is so modern, so clean. Like this description of Kip Tyler – one of the key members of the 50s Californian rockabilly scene: Kip Tyler (May 31, 1929 - September 23, 1996) was an American rock and roll singer and bongo player.

And then later similarly from wik:

‘Tyler took on the name of Jimmy Daley (the main character of the movie who he provided a voice over for) and formed the band Jimmy Daley And The Ding-A-Lings.’

(The Ding-A-Lings? These guys were doing it deadpan in that era, though, never for a laugh. Such detail always appeals to me, similarly this very serious comment from an appreciation  of the artist:   

There are rumours that Tyler in 1962 recorded the single “Drum Twist 1 & 2” (Torchlight #501) under the name of Kipper & The Exciters but we have been unable to conclusively prove this. Similarly, it remains to be established the “Target Twist/Stompin” released under the name of Kippster was Kip Tyler.

‘There are rumours …’ Sounds like something from The Pixies).

This tune, this paean to a ‘chick with a wicked twitch’ has been covered numerous times, with each rendition tending to stay close to the original – with a few exceptions. My favourites among them, this super-delicate version from the Voodoo Sharks, with the stagey almost-spoken delivery (note the great B&W archival and other footage in the video). 

The most popular in terms of views is by the UK-based psychobilly group, The Radiacs – sped up part, chilled, slow down towards the end, descending .. vocals sound as if they were recorded back in the distance.

Direct quotation: "The term "psychobilly" was first used in the lyrics to the country song "One Piece at a Time", written by Wayne Kemp for Johnny Cash, which was a Top 10 hit in the United States in 1976. The lyrics describe the construction of a "psychobilly Cadillac using stolen auto parts."

But the true keeper for me is by The Fuzztones, a group apparently ‘dismissed by some critics and listeners as a "bar band" or unoriginal, they maintained a strong fan base in New York, in Europe (with their music being played on Hungarian State Radio) … and in Los Angeles.’

It’s really lovely how they slow it down and purposefully under-play it. 

'He needs me' Nina Simone (Little Girl Blue/Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, Bethlehem, 1958)

Nina Simone’s debut record – that after a dispute led her to sever all ties with the record label - includes many of her most famous songs and the less-known ‘He needs me’. It’s striking to remember that Simone recorded this when in her 20s, as it conveys such depth and complexity of emotion.

Those seconds after the first note where the sound expands almost in the silence, just before the second note and she starts singing, this is such a stunning beginning and something that affects me so much; that lingering pause where she is waiting and the audience also.

I remember reading a passing comment in a Toni Morrison novel about the self-abnegation of the characters, or indeed the perspective, of some Nina Simone songs (though the word the character in the novel used was much harsher in judgment). Perhaps ‘He needs me’ could be included in this.

And yet, there is a mix of contradictory emotions being expressed here that are not easily defined, or put into a box: resignation, sadness, but also defiance, and possibly manipulation (remember her stated intention is that her ‘one ambition’ is to make the indifferent man recognise her and his need for her). The song then ends with a confession that, as is Simone’s wont, sounds like a question and is etched with vulnerability and uncertainty.

The piano performance, the way it interlaces with the tenderness of the vocal is extremely beautiful, making manifest the virtues of understatement and restraint.  

The song was written by Arthur Hamilton and included in a 1955 film ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues’ – a musical based on a radio series, apparently that featured many of the stars from that era; Ella Fitzgerald, for example and Peggy Lee, who won an Oscar for her performance (see below). This description from Wiks appeals to me:

Jazz cornetist Pete Kelly (Webb) and his Big Seven are the house band at the 17 Club, a speakeasy in Kansas City in 1927 during Prohibition. New local crime boss Fran McCarg (Edmond O’Brien) wants a percentage of the band’s meager earnings. When the band is opposed, Kelly decides to decline and see what happens.

However before the night ends, Rudy, the manager of the club, orders Kelly and the band to go to the house of wealthy Ivy Conrad (Janet Leigh), a woman with a reputation for hosting rowdy parties and who has designs on Kelly. Reluctantly, Kelly arrives at the party and leaves a message for McCarg to call him there. When the call comes through, it is intercepted by Kelly’s drunk, hot-tempered drummer, Joey Firestone (Martin Milner), who turns McCarg down. Kelly and his band are run off the road as they drive back to Kansas City.

The following night, Firestone roughs up Guy Bettenhauser, McCarg’s right-hand man. Kelly desperately tries to patch things up, but to no avail. As the band finishes its last number, two gunmen burst through the front door of the club. Kelly tries to save Firestone by sending him out the back, but Firestone is shot to death in the alleyway. Tired and frustrated by his drummer’s murder and the subsequent departure of Al (Lee Marvin), his clarinettist and long-time friend, Kelly returns to his apartment to find Ivy waiting for him. Although he initially resists her advances, the two strike up a relationship that turns into an engagement.

Here is Peggy Lee singing ‘He needs me’ on TV in 1955 to promote the film; her performance has an otherworldly, sleepwalking quality that strikes me as strange, but sweet all the same, as she stares up at the ceiling, or in the direction of the camera blankly (and the swirling strings surround her) …


'The Man I Love' Sarah Vaughan (EmArcy Records 1957)

Producers talk about the rich sound quality captured in recordings from earlier eras, the warmth of the sound that now seems lost in the digital files, keeping this in mind take a minute to listen to this jazz standard, notice the openness of the sound, the way it begins.

(This music makes me nostalgic for a Sunday night double-bill at the Astor theatre in Melbourne, where I would watch films from the 1950s, in black & white, sometimes falling asleep to be jolted awake at certain moments, as a tattooed Robert Mitchum, or a dewy-eyed starlet forced us to recognise the purity of their craft).

What I love, and I really do, about Vaughan's delivery is the way she plays with contrasts: the way her singing has both the distinctive wavering vowel sounds that she made her own ('playing with the melody') and then how she brutally cuts words short, so abruptly. There's a majesty to Vaughan's performance, where she plays with our desire to hear the sound, being played out/extended and then refuses us. And yet, despite the genius of her technique, Vaughan allows a definite feeling to come though - a kind of sweet-hearted yearning that never ceases to affect me.

All of this reminds me of this piece of music and performance that also touches me (just listen to that amazing beginning) :

Compare the Sarah Vaughan version with the rendition by Billie Holiday 

what you sense with Holiday's version is that she is telling a story - describing something logical - in contrast, when Sarah Vaughan sings it is as if she is embodying the feeling, she has become the emotion.

Vaughan runs the words together unexpectedly, without caring about making it something we can understand (all those things the man she loves will do for her, or with her: 

He'll build a little home
Just meant for two
From which I'll never roam
Who would? Would you?

are only symbols in her imagination) but we can feel her longing. This makes the music so touching, but also so sad as if the entire song is little more than an expression of her imagination, 'one day he'll come along ...' 

This song could be the final whisper of a woman in a shelter: 

And when he comes my way
I'll do my best to make him stay

And when he comes along ...

He'll look at me and smile
I'll understand
And in a little while
He'll take my hand
And though it seems absurd
I know we both won't say a word

Vaughan's ability to express strong feeling, or break it down to its purest form - to the level of sound rather than narrative - is what impresses me so much, alongside that velvety cadence of hers that breaks my heart each time I hear this music.

Here's another version with a kind of nursery rhyme beginning:


(From 1938) 


John Cage talked about sound having no inherent, essential character, or personality and that it forever remained mysterious, unknown, resisting any of our attempts to interpret it (and then perhaps implicit in this statement is an idea that any effort to understand it was a waste of our time). 

I love this interview for many reasons (including the way it's recorded, with the traffic sound from the street, captured from New York's Sixth Avenue). 'If you listen to traffic it's always different ...'

(Though I'm not sure why there is a bit of Baker and a French composer added to the end; just skip that part maybe).

Cage is challenging us here because we like to interpret sounds; indeed it's an essential part of how we engage with art, keeping it at a distance from us while we also seek to possess it. We offer our opinions and make value judgements, or interpret sounds as having some kind of emotional quality. We hold onto the experience of listening as if it were fixed, reflecting something about who we are.

I sincerely appreciate the humility of Cage here, is it possible for us to just listen and respond to something as it is? 

'Our next contestant please will you come in ...'

I'll return to writing more about Cage later, funnily enough I started writing something else thinking that I could use the above interview and then ended up here (where?) trawling the archives and remembering why I ...

Here is one of my most beloved pieces of music.