On Mal Waldron

(Reprinted from old DTM; originally posted March 2010.)

In the late 1950’s, Mal Waldron was an important member of the common-practice jazz fraternity: he gigged with Billie Holiday and Charles Mingus, was the house composer and arranger for Prestige Records, and took part in early attempts at Music Minus One. His original music was workmanlike and riff-based, much like his piano playing, and he didn’t mind writing out easy piano scores for publication.

Waldron was often compared to Thelonious Monk, which was fair because he didn’t play very fast and stated the beat in a similarly uncomplicated manner. (Appropriately, Waldron is the pianist on Steve Lacy’s freshman record of Monk tunes with Buell Neidlinger and Elvin Jones, which I believe was the very first album of Monk tunes not played by Monk himself.) But Waldron wasn’t a mature artist yet. His solos displayed authentic hard-bop flavored with a taste of surrealism, but lacked the power of Horace Silver or Monk.

“You Stepped Out of a Dream” on his trio album Impressions is a good representation of his early style at its most fluent. The same record with Addison Farmer and Tootie Heath contains several originals with unusual details; as far as I know, this is the most complex trio music Waldron ever recorded. Around this time he produced two ballads that have become standards thanks to later recordings by Abbey Lincoln (“Left Alone”) and John Coltrane (“Soul Eyes”).

In the early sixties his laconic attitude and ease with paper made him a good fit for the emerging avant-garde: not with the completely free or atonal players, but with those doing more measured experiments like Max Roach and Eric Dolphy. Several sets of Dolphy and Waldron alongside Booker Little, Richard Davis, and Ed Blackwell at the Five Spot are famous. Here, Waldron’s laconicism is beginning to morph into a non-virtuosic drone distantly connected to McCoy Tyner’s modality. After a token nod at running the II/V changes, most of the piano solo on Waldron’s “Fire Waltz” consists of walking up and down a C minor ninth chord or the pentatonic scale.

This solo prefigures Waldron’s mature music. He was probably encouraged by how well this new style fit with Davis and Blackwell. All three play what they play: no exceptions, no hesitations, no reactions. It’s a kind of informed and intentional ignorance. I would never dare accuse these profound musicians of not listening to each other, but listening does seem somewhere down the list of essentials, after vibe, time, and content. Of all the great 60’s jazz rhythm sections, Waldron-Davis-Blackwell is the most “world music” or “faux-African”: no one bends or adjusts, and everything remains pretty much at one dynamic level throughout. If the form gets lost sometimes (which it does, like at the top of the piano solo on “Fire Waltz”), you can’t readily tell from the way it chugs along. Perhaps few records with Waldron, Davis, or Blackwell -- by themselves or together -- are ever going to be considered heavily swinging events by the toughest jazz police. But these musicians show us that you don’t have to be concerned about “fitting in” when swinging in order to be beautiful.

Shortly after this gig, Waldron nearly died from a heroin overdose. In a revealing interview with Ted Panken, Waldron says, "I was out for about 6 or 7 months, in East Elmhurst Hospital, and they gave me shock treatments and spinal taps and all kinds of things to relieve the pressure on my mind, to get my memory back, because I couldn’t remember where I was, I couldn’t remember anything about the piano or anything." Most of his music immediately after his hospital stay is very rare and made after his relocation to Europe. (Thanks to reader TW, I've just listened for the first time to Waldon's last American recording for many years, the 1967 soundtrack for Sweet Love, Bitter. As this clip suggests, some of the tunes are in Waldron's 50’s hard bop style. Other tracks are reworkings of previous themes: "Loser's Lament" is "Left Alone" and "Della's Dream" is "Fire Waltz." The latter has some of the only featured piano on the soundtrack. It doesn't sound different than at the Five Spot.)

On Waldron’s next easily accessible recording, 1969’s Free at Last (the first ECM record), everything is reduced to the drone and the riff, and his touch has gotten more secure and elemental. As far as I can tell, Waldron wouldn’t really develop further until his death in 2002. Nor would he need to.

While on the 50’s records he threads changes, the mature Waldron doesn’t give a damn about making guide tones connect in satisfying or surprising ways. The right hand is an incantatory shaman sitting atop the chugging, low-register left, insisting that a short stutter of melody will fit anything: any harmony, any place in the beat, any tune. If the changes are noticed, simple lines are repeated in unvarying sequence. His old solo on “You Stepped Out of A Dream” seems like Warne Marsh in comparison.

Both standards and originals have the same basic sound, which is a droning, vamping stomp. After looking over this essay, Benoît Delbecq offered an important piece of the puzzle:

I remember Mal telling me in the late 80's about his grandmother: she was a Native American (perhaps Sioux?) who had an extremely intense relation to nature -- plants and flowers in particular. She would plant a seed anywhere and it'd grow like magic, and her garden was a marvelous and magical space. Waldron told me she always had been a strong source of inspiration for him. Also I now remember Mal wore a talisman necklace that also came from his native relatives. His relation to mystics was very intense, and I tend to believe this is the origin of his stubborn-like pattern repetition concepts. I remember also he warned me not to try to play like "piano-bar jazz" - he was not a mocking person but certainly had a big laugh after saying this. (This is when I was showing him some Bill Evans-like harmonies I was learning.)

But there is also a darker side to Waldron’s best music that is not so decipherable in sensitive or spiritual terms. I'm reminded of H. P. Lovecraft's favorite anti-adjective unnameable: it seethes and burbles without coming to a climax or caring if you like it or not.

And not everybody likes it. While many jazz fans have easily connected with Waldron’s emotional power, some professionals find Mal Waldron’s mature music merely amateurish, probably because it doesn’t play by the rules of sophisticated jazz. It’s certainly not that swinging, in part because Waldron frequently pushes ahead of the beat. Solo or duo I don’t really notice this, and trusted companions like Ed Blackwell or a long list of B-team drummers would helpfully contextualize Waldron with either righteous authority or bland incompetence. But I sympathize with those who have heard mature Waldron collaborations with more conventionally solid straight-ahead musicians and found the feel a bit awkward.

The band on Free at Last is more on the B-team side, with Waldron having the best time of anyone present. This was regrettably a frequent occurrence: Waldron recorded too much, with too many lesser lights. I forgive him, since I’m sure that recording was a significant part of his income. The Japanese took a special interest in the Mothra of the piano: there’s probably 100 Waldron records made for various Japanese labels alone. (Waldron’s first version of “Left Alone” with Jackie McLean has iconic status with Japanese jazz lovers.) In general, the quality of a mature Waldron record is based on the quality of the other musicians present. If they are famous, good. If they are unfamiliar, maybe.

Waldron’s duo with Steve Lacy is justly celebrated. It’s amusing to read Lacy’s description of Waldron as a master accompanist. Lacy’s right, of course, but that’s hardly the whole story: Waldron bangs his rocks together full out behind Lacy’s impassioned and structurally perfect solos, and then, when Lacy’s done, he bangs his rocks alone in the same fashion. A notable exception to this procedure is the Ellington/Strayhorn tribute Sempre Amore, during which Waldron seems to remember that back in the 50’s he could play any genre of jazz. The comparatively gentle result is magnificent. For me, the similarly reserved concept record Hot House is nowhere near as good, although “Petite Fleur” and “The Mooche” have an appealing gloom. Those are the only studio records from this duo; the rest of their discography are live gigs featuring Monk tunes (great) and noisy originals (even better). Lacy and Waldron also worked many times with a rhythm section; again, the quality of those bands varied.

Since Waldron played one way, it is always interesting to hear musicians familiar from other contexts adjust to him, like in duos with Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, and Jim Pepper. If you study Billy Higgins or Joe Henderson, check out One Entrance, Many Exits. But perhaps the best example of Waldron's gravitational pull is one of my favorite records ever: What It Is with Clifford Jordan, Cecil McBee, and Dannie Richmond.


I love the cover photo almost as much as the music. Waldron was extremely photogenic: His great look undoubtedly helped him sustain a viable career playing recondite music. Everyone interested in marketing uncompromising jazz should check out a vinyl edition of What it Is. It’s obviously badass avant-garde black music that you must buy immediately.

It seems like Mingus would be an obvious reference on What it Is, since McBee is going for a post-Mingus thing and everyone else worked with him. But no Mingus music sounds like this. Jordan’s blues “Charlie Parker’s Last Supper” is swinging and singing hard until the piano solo, when Mal’s stutter once again seeks what is simultaneously lurid and boring. The other two extended pieces are “Hymn to the Inferno” and “What it Is,” both simple Waldron vamps that go into free-form roils. I haven’t heard Jordan play free anywhere else but he sounds great! Waldron usually responds to a free-form situation by playing augmented triads and diminished fifths up and down chromatically. No one else would dare, and few others would sound as good no matter what other virtuosic stuff they could do. This record also has some of the best non-Mingus Dannie Richmond I’ve heard.

But Waldron’s most profound drummer relationship was with Ed Blackwell. Blackwell played with very few piano players, and frankly it doesn’t always really work. For example, I admire Michel Petrucciani but find his work on Joe Lovano’s From the Soul controversial: there isn’t enough space; he doesn’t hit enough downbeats; he doesn’t riff enough. Obviously, I want him to play more like Mal Waldron!

The only reason I want to hear more Waldron from Petrucciani (an admittedly absurd construct) is the presence of Ed Blackwell, who in his maturity grandly summoned the ancestors with every note. HONOR THE DRUMMER should be every jazz musician’s motto. Blackwell is not going to change his New Orleans parade snare or bright, forward-leaning ride for anybody. Nor should he. It’s the job of the other musicians to honor Blackwell and make him sound good. Petrucciani’s decorative, post-Bill Evans style leaves Blackwell in the cold. (The other Lovano-Blackwell collaboration, Sounds of Joy, is terrific, partially because they are unencumbered by a pianist.)

Waldron’s trio with Blackwell had Reggie Workman on bass. What was hinted at twenty years earlier with Richard Davis is now fully realized. Although he was once a fairly straight-ahead player, by the time of the Waldron records Workman was a loose avant-gardist. Like Blackwell, his style won’t fit with decorative or hip modern jazz harmony. He just strums away, channeling the mystic, perhaps with less consistent excellence than Blackwell but still with real fire. Waldron, Workman, and Blackwell together is pure evil.

The video of the evil trio backing Charlie Rouse and Woody Shaw at the Vanguard is a precious document. “The Git-Go” is a long mono-dynamic gaze into the chasm. YouTube: Rouse has it together (and I never heard him play on one chord before), but Shaw is simply unbelievable. Mal plays the same solo he always does. Just perfect. Great side angle shots of Blackwell’s left hand, too. 

But I owe the most to discs of Waldron, Workman, and Blackwell without horns. They were CDs I listened to constantly as a young jazz fan trying to figure out how to play. Breaking New Ground is a concept album. Some Japanese producer thought, “Let’s have Mal Waldron play the hits of the day.” Hearing “Beat It” played by the evil trio is really bizarre: Michael Jackson as mummified Autobot. But it’s also one of the reasons I immediately felt comfortable playing rock covers in the Bad Plus. (Also, somewhere there’s a video of me playing this album’s arrangement of “Suicide is Painless” on Menomonie public access TV.)

But the better CD overall is You and the Night and the Music, which is a collection of standards and blues. A bracing salutation by Blackwell leads into “The Way You Look Tonight” with the following evil reharmonization:

F / B7(b5) / Bb6 / E half dim, A7 (b5) /
D min / F# half dim, B7 (b5) / E half dim (!?!) / G min, C7 / 

The changes then continue normally.

I suspect that Waldron almost always worked from published sheet music, not from fake books or jazz recordings. At least that is what this arrangement sounds like. When it's not evil, it's "showtuney," not "jazzy."


You and the Night and the Music is the only record of a piano trio playing standards with Blackwell on drums. His African-derived tom-patterns are nice and loud in the mix, as is Workman’s groaning bass. I suspect most of my peers would find this record rather strange, and perhaps if I heard it for the first time now, I would, too. But I heard it early -- the long-defunct ProJazz label somehow got their product into Best Buy in Eau Claire (probably a Japanese electronics connection) -- and I bit that apple hard. To this day I more readily appreciate jazz that is stark, surreal, and bass-and-drums-heavy (like the evil trio) than jazz that is decorative, sensible, and piano-centric (like most piano trios).

When preparing for a standards album with Ben Street and Tootie Heath live at Smalls, I put on You and the Night and the Music in order to remind myself of the father. My wife soon remarked, “Who is this? It sounds like you.”

No, it’s not me, nor do I think it really sounds like the way I play today, either. But I owe one hell of a lot to Mal Waldron.

Tootie suggested covering Jackie McLean’s “Little Melonae,” since his childhood friend Ronald Tucker played drums on it. The pianist on the same 1955 recording is Mal Waldron, and Tootie is on that early Waldron album, Impressions. And then I realized that “Little Melonae”’s quasi-modal harmonic structure would have been perfect for Mal’s mature style...

I had such fun imitating Waldron shamelessly! Drones, motifs, lurching rhythm, the whole shebang. Imitating someone else is usually a bad idea, but this time I just couldn’t resist.

Jacob Wunsch, who transcribed the Cedar Walton interview, has repeatedly asked me about Mal Waldron. Initially, I didn’t feel like responding; we don’t always like discussing our biggest influences. But, I’ve decided to fess up, and even record an homage. Thanks, Mal.

Regardless whatever impact he had on me, I firmly believe that the music moves forward by confronting and reacting to the unrepentantly idiosyncratic types. If you've never dealt with Mal Waldron, now's the time.