Returning from a medical catastrophe, Mal Waldron played his own individualistic piano style that led him to Europe, where he recorded for ECM Records and played with burgeoning German hippie-synth band Embryo.
by Marshall Bowden
In the 1950s Mal Waldron was part of the jazz firmament, working with a variety of musicians including Charles Mingus, and serving as a house composer and arranger at Prestige, where he composed such classics as “Left Alone” and “Soul Eyes.” He played with popular jazz recording artists like Lucky Thompson and Ike Quebec. He accompanied Billie Holiday from 1957-59, though he only appears on one of her records, the somewhat tragic Lady In Satin.
As the sixties began, Waldron was also open to working with musicians whose conception was different–not completely free, but more angular and experimental such as Eric Dolphy. and Booker Little. Waldron also maintained a certain simpatico with Thelonious Monk as well as some hard bop mannerisms of Horace Silver (ornamentation that Monk advised him to drop in favor or his own personal style). But he still could be a highly melodic player when the circumstances demanded it.
In 1963 Waldron almost died after a heroin overdose. He spent seven months hospitalized, unable to remember even basic stuff, including how to play the piano, which he had to relearn, in part, by listening to his old recordings. He composed two soundtracks and then cut short a budding film scoring career by moving to Paris in 1965, settling finally in Munich in 1967. He didn’t record again until 1969, when he released a trio recording, Free At Last, which was the first record released on Manfred Eicher’s new ECM label. Waldron’s playing is different than his pre-overdose work, much more elemental and with a basis in drones, riffing, and a near-funk level of blues and beat. On a track like “Rock My Soul” the group achieves something like the droning modal explorations of the John Coltrane Quartet, where the continuous repetition of motifs or rhythms assumes a near-mystical apotheosis.
The record isn’t much like the type of piano record that made ECM famous (Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley), nor is it like what Waldron was doing before. He had stripped his sound down to its most important elements, and this line of inquiry became his sound and his contribution to the jazz piano canon. Free at Last is mostly remembered for being the first ECM release. Many do not consider the record as being extraordinary–it’s a bit too loose for the classicists and yet too structured and controlled for the free jazz contingent. But it was not the only trio document that Waldron recorded for ECM–well, sort of.
In 1971 Waldron recorded and released his second ECM album, entitled Spanish Bitch. The album was never released on ECM, however, seeing its first and only release on Japan’s Global label, though ECM still owns the recording. This album is a followup to Free At Last in every way, but it has not been reissued on CD nor vinyl, nor is it available on Spotify or other streaming services. That’s a significant lapse considering the importance of Free At Last to ECM’s ponderous catalog. It’s every bit as solid a record, maybe more interesting because Waldron has positioned himself to further explore the ideas on Free At Last, and he does. Bassist Isla Eckinger, who played on Free At Last, is back, but the previous drummer Clarence Becton is replaced by Fred Braceful, who seems much better suited to the group’s overall dynamic. The group stretches out over lengthy Waldron originals (“Spanish Bitch,” “Black Chant,” and “All That Funk”) with one cover, a version of “Eleanor Rigby” that sounds as much like The Bad Plus as it does anyone else who has come along since.
That reference is an acknowledgment that former Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson is one modern pianist who counts Waldron as one of his influences, and you can hear it if you listen to both. Waldron was influenced by Bud Powell during his first incarnation as a pianist, and so was Iverson (in fact his most recent recording, Bud Powell in the 21st Century, is a tribute to Powell that also features his modernizing arrangements of some of Powell’s compositions). That influence comes across, for both pianists, as something that is more in the energy and the modernistic structure of their music than in their piano playing itself.
Iverson is far from the only pianist to have been influenced by Waldron; Stanley Cowell and Matthew Shipp also bear marks of his influence in both their piano playing and their compositional styles: Shipp acknowledges Waldron as one of his Black Mystery School pianists in an essay on the topic this past December (2020).
The next year Waldron went into the studio and recorded another album, The Call, which is unlike any of his previous work and which showed him moving into areas that were becoming defined by terms like progressive rock or fusion. The quartet this time is made up of Waldron on electric piano, Eberhard Weber (who would become an ECM mainstay) on bass, drummer Fred Braceful from the Spanish Bitch recording, and organist Jimmy Johnson, who was already playing with Christian Burchard’s group Embryo. Johnson’s swirling organ work gives The Call more of the feel of a freely jamming rock band or prog-rock group than a free jazz group. Julian Cope’s Head Heritage website has a nice write-up on The Call.
On the first side, “The Call,” he adds a lot of the music’s excitement, soloing while Weber and Braceful forge ahead with the beat and Waldron bubbles and chatters on electric piano, creating unstoppable energy. Side two, a piece called “Thoughts” is less dense and more open-ended at first, but it also develops a groove that carries it downstream effortlessly. Waldron solos more on this one, exploring a series of motifs while Braceful kicks up the dust behind him.
The Call fits very comfortably into some of the more improvisational-based records that ECM was recording, some with electric instrumentation, some with standard acoustic jazz instruments. The sonic nature of the records was less important than the music that was being played. Waldron was working with Johnson and Christian Burchard, who had formed the band Embryo. Embryo grew out of the German commune scene of the late 1960s/early 1970s, with various members involved in precursors such as Amon Duul II as well as playing with Waldron’s quartet at various German gigs.
The Embryo compilation 40 features some of this early music, including “For Eva” by the Christian Burchard trio (featuring Burchard on vibraphone) and “Marokko” which is credited to the Mal Waldron quartet and features Burchard, again on vibraphone. A lot of early Embryo/Burchard recordings have been released from Bruchard’s archival vault of recordings. A series entitled Memory Lane (V.1-4) has been released by Bruchard’s FUEGO label and there has also been a series entitled Time Warp (V.1-4). Both of these are pretty straightforward jazz explorations.
Stieg Ausand Rocksession, two Embryo albums culled from three separate sessions recorded 1971-72, both feature Waldron at the electric piano. Many of these performances by Waldron are likely considered sub-par by the mainstream jazz community–that always seems to be the judgment made when well known and talented jazz artists are playing and recording with new, younger artists or artists involved in rock or popular music who do not possess ‘real chops’ from a traditional perspective. This was the accusation made against Coltrane post-Quartet, against Miles in his electric period, and it could be argued that Waldron’s playing with Embryo isn’t jazz and doesn’t really count as part of his oeuvre, but I disagree strongly. Listen for example, to the spacey Waldron electric piano solo that begins soon after the five-minute mark on “Dreaming Girls,” the second track on Sieg Aus, where he both lowers the sonic temperature and returns the song to its structure after a wild jam session.
Stieg Aus also features”The Call” as a more rock-oriented suite of music, but the core of the performance is still the extraordinary interplay between Mal Waldron and Jimmy Johnson. In an interview, Burchard had this to say about these two powerhouse keyboard players working together on these recordings: “Steig aus was done in the same studio, almost the same lineup plus the genius of Mal Waldron who had a super communication with Jimmy Jackson…Rocksession was a bit like Steig aus because of the fantastic organ player Jimmy Jackson and the musical architect on the electric piano Mal Waldron.”
Embryo moved on towards incorporating more Indian and Asian elements into their German space-age jams (you can hear them heading in that direction on Stieg Aus‘ opening track, “Radio Marakesch/Orient Express”), while Waldron moved on to recording with a variety of other jazz musicians (Archie Shepp, George Haslam). Embryo also frequently worked with Charlie Mariano, and have released a recording from a 1973 gig in Hamburg featuring both Mariano and Waldron.
Embryo has since been acknowledged to be one of the early purveyors of the free jazz-jam side of Krautrock, and there is ever more Waldron being released as various recordings from this time period are unearthed both in the U.S. and Europe. It’s a fact that Waldron was over-recorded and some of the performances issued aren’t that great, but there is plenty there of interest as well, for example, four Black Lion trio releases issued in 2012 as part of the Black Lion Vault Series which I also recommend. But that’s a story for another day.