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Mal Waldron – Up Popped The Devil (1973)

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A Darker Shade Of Blue

Enja Records – 2034, Enja Records – 2034 ST
Location: Studio Warp, NYC
Date: December 28, 1973 – (Original Vinyl, LP Album Made in W.-Germany)

Review By JOHN FERDHAM

For piano-jazz audiences now familiar with the winding journeys of Brad Mehldau (contemporary jazz’s Glenn Gould), or the Latin-postbop fury of McCoy Tyner, or the rich contemporary-standards virtuosity of Herbie Hancock, the late Mal Waldron may sound like something of a blunt instrument.

Waldron played like a man simultaneously preoccupied by intoning a mantra and knocking nails into a plank – a performer whose music would often focus on long, imperceptibly changing barrages of clusters, delivered in close collaboration with partners. Nobody sounded like Waldron (who died early this year at 77) and not many pianists wanted to, but he was a jazz musician to the roots, an unswerving individualist with the kind of open ears that also made him a sensitive sharer. The latter quality brought him some of the most illustrious sideman roles in the jazz world, including two years with Billie Holiday in the 1950s as well as work with John Coltrane and Charles Mingus.

This set, from 1973 (on the German label the then expatriate Waldron had helped found), brings out all the pianist’s stubborn minimalism – his stripped-down style that came after his nervous breakdown in the early 1960s. The partners are bassist Reggie Workman (with whom Waldron shared several other memorable ventures) and the sparkling drummer Billy Higgins. The set is a loose, three-way group improvisation in which the leader plays an entirely collaborative part.

A Waldron favourite, the tumbling rise and fall of Snake Out, is here, with the pianist hitting the keys with venomous emphasis throughout, and Higgins clattering and tickling joyously around him. Workman darts and growls around the dignified, faintly Abdullah Ibrahim-like repeating chords of Changachangachanga, which exactly conveys what the theme sounds like. Workman’s buzzy arco playing, exclamatory noises and pining high-register sounds mingle seamlessly with Higgins’s flickering brushwork on the title track.

A long way from lyrical or song-based jazz, of course, but a three-way spontaneous conversation in a pretty distinctive language.

_ The Guardian, Friday 28 November 2003

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