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.