Live Recordings

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.

Alternate versions: ‘Oh my lover’ PJ Harvey (Peel Session, 1991 & Dry, Too Pure, 1992) plus Nina Simone

To begin with the essential sweetness of this demo version …

Underneath one of the videos posted online someone had written how PJ Harvey had recorded this demo as a teenager to get her first record deal; she sounds so young here, her voice is noticeably different, lacking the magisterial nature of the final recorded version. What’s interesting is the way this youthful voice dilutes the ‘female masochistic-schtick’ critique that could be levelled at the lyrics, as what comes through is the giddy enthusiasm, the excitement, spinning in a lovely exuberance (that total devotion thing fed to women via a lifetime of fairy-tales of all kinds), it’s got total bounce.

Love the way she doubles her voice at the end, it’s so impressive on every level: song-writing, performance, creative vision. As for the recorded version that came out on 1992 debut:

From that opening moment, the intensity of it: this is just one of those extraordinary songs. Listen to that distorted bass/guitar and the unexpected phrasing of the drums. It is archetypal – a folk song transposed to the modern era, timeless. It reminds me of this similarly magical live 1969 performance by Nina Simone of ‘Black is the color of my true love’s hair’ for the same seriousness of intent, declaration: the strength of the woman’s voice.

Here’s the Peel Sessions version from 1991, which sounds almost the same as the recorded version, which further demonstrates the level of Harvey’s musicianship (she was born in 1969, so only was only 22-years-old or so at the time of recording). Check out this interesting video with Harvey speaking about her creative, song writing process put up in 2011.    

Coda:

Related article: PJ Harvey 'Silence' (White Chalk, Island Records 2007) published 27th February 2016

I have written a lot on Nina Simone on this site, go here to find all the references.   

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).  

Live Recordings: ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’ Aretha Franklin (Amazing Grace, Atlantic/Rhino Entertainment, 1972)

Recorded 'Live' at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, Los Angeles in January, 1972. With the Southern California Community Choir.

Personnel: Aretha Franklin - vocals, piano, Chuck Rainey – bass, Cornell Dupree – guitar, Kenneth Lupper – organ, Pancho Morales - percussion, conga, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie – drums, Southern California Community Choir - background vocal

Amazing Grace won the 1972 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance and is the biggest selling pure Gospel album in history.  

Oh Oh Mary
Oh Oh Mary

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.  

I went to this recording session. It was announced on the soul station in LA on Friday nite that Aretha was recording live that weekend & people were welcome to come, so I scraped together my dimes for gas & high-tailed it down there Saturday in my white Pontiac Bonneville which got 8 miles to the gallon. To add to the drama, Mick Jagger was up in the front row clapping & yelling. Aretha’s father ran the show & the title says it. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. 2 sessions — Saturday & Sunday. Seems like a dream now. What a moment in time. When Aretha was in her prime she could make you hallucinate. When she ran a scale it was like a huge firetruck drove by with all the sirens blasting. W-O-W...I remember her father saying...Aretha is a “stone singer”.  Well, yes. Testify. I was there & must say I agree 1000%.
— Comment below the YouTube video (Esquibelle)

Well, Satan got mad and he knows I'm glad. 
Missed that soul that he thought he had.
Now, didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep. 

I went to the second session, that Saturday evening and you’re right, seems like a dream now. When Aretha was leaving the church, so many people shook her hand. She was so gentle and a little timid back then.
— Comment below the YouTube Video (Harold Walker)

Well, one of these nights around twelve o'clock
This old town's gonna really rock
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 

Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

What I appreciate most about music of that decade is the very fact that instruments and voices were pure. No pitch bender, nothing mechanical, no tweaking, nothing artificial..................just pure music.
— Comment below the YouTube video (Monique Purcell)

Cheer up, sisters and don't you cry. 
There'll be good times bye and bye.
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep. 

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 

Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned?

Oh, Mary, don't you weep. 

Versions/Live Recordings: 'Sunny' Bobby Hebb (Sunny, Philips, 1966)

Live performance from 1972, with Ron Carter

Written in the 48 hours after a ‘double tragedy’ in 1963 - the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the murder of Hebb’s older brother, Harold who was stabbed to death outside a Nashville nightclub’ (source, Wik), ‘Sunny’ is one of those key touchstone tracks whose success has eclipsed all the other work by songwriter, Bobby Hebb.

Hebb claimed that he wrote the song as an expression of a preference for a 'sunny' disposition over a 'lousy' disposition following the murder of his brother and that his goal with the ‘optimistic’ lyrics was to express the idea that one should always ‘look at the bright side’.

All my intentions were to think of happier times and pay tribute to my brother – basically looking for a brighter day – because times were at a low. After I wrote it, I thought ‘Sunny’ just might be a different approach to what Johnny Bragg – from the Prisonaires -was talking about in ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain.’ 

Though if you listen to the Prisonaires’ track there is little obvious point of connection between the two: ‘Sunny’ appears to be a straight-up love song, while ‘Just Walkin’ is an expression of hopelessness. It was released on Sun Records in 1953, while the group was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville – here is some info on the group that included one member on a 99-year prison sentence. They were given day release to perform across the state and became famous during their time. 

The dark inspiration for the song’s composition – the two murders – and the reference to the imprisoned singers fascinates me, as it disrupts what would arguably be the most common associations with the song, as a ‘simple’ expression of love and feel-good, light-hearted entertainment, aka Boney M groovin' & movin' in sequins. 

Without wanting to over-state this too much, I like to think that this song holds this complexity and depth – as code – within it; you can feel it in the live version above, with Ron Carter, where there is an element of threat, or menace in the way Hebb enunciates and the music builds. You can sense it in the lyrics too that strike me as surprisingly non-specific for a straightforward love song:

‘Sunny
Thank you for the truth you let me see
Sunny
Thank you for the facts from A to Z
My life was torn like wind-blown sand
And a rock was formed when you held my hand (oh, sunny)
Sunny one so true, I love you.

Sunny
Thank you for the smile upon your face
Hmm, sunny
Thank you, thank you for the gleam that shows its grace
You're my spark of nature's fire
You're my sweet complete desire
Sunny one so true, yes, I love you

‘Thank you for the gleam that shows its grace/You're my spark of nature's fire ..’ aside from being wonderfully poetic it sounds far from human, is Hebb encouraging us to think that he is, in fact, referring to something more abstract, without spelling it out in fixed terms. This notion bewitches me a little; pop transcendence, hidden in plain view.    

The raw intensity of the live acoustic performance is missing in the original recorded version that has a sweet self-exposure and vulnerability, in the way it starts and falls away from time to time. Hebb’s 1966 album is really consistent, with some equally impressive songs; see, for example, I am your man and You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until You Lose It

Within the year and soon after, well-known artists were releasing their takes, most notably, Marvin Gaye and this superb version from the Stevie Wonder Live record – bassline paradise forming ...

'Sunny baby yeah ...'

Here’s Ella Fitzgerald/Tom Jones with the Welsh crooner tapping out the beat on a rocking chair, and even more surprisingly the film noir icon Robert Mitchum in 1967 offering his rendition as well. Jazz musicians also got involved in the celebration: notably, this classy and restrained Stanley Turrentine 1966 interpretation, but here is my preferred, as always, the passionate Les McCann exorcising spirits: 

Though the two versions that really strike me come from two non-Anglo women, first the Italian Luisa Casali – again from 1966  and this stunning rendition from Mieko "Miko" Hirota who has been called the "Connie Francis of Japan". Really love what she does here, encapsulating the erotics of the unhinged, while sounding completely committed.