Two legends of Free Jazz this weekend; pianist Mal Waldron and alto-player Jackie McLean in one of their many collaborations, recorded live at Piazzo Dante in Verona Italy on June 25, 2001 by Italian Radio/TV network RAI.
Mal Waldron started playing professionally in New York in 1950, after graduating from university. In the following dozen years or so Waldron led his own bands and played for those led by Charles Mingus, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, and Eric Dolphy, among others. During Waldron’s period as house pianist for Prestige Records in the late 1950s, he appeared on dozens of albums and composed for many of them, including writing his most famous song, “Soul Eyes”, for Coltrane. Waldron was often an accompanist for vocalists, and was Billie Holiday’s regular accompanist from April 1957 until her death in July 1959.
A breakdown caused by a drug overdose in 1963 left Waldron unable to play or remember any music; he regained his skills gradually, while redeveloping his speed of thought. He left the U.S. permanently in the mid-1960s, settled in Europe, and continued touring internationally until his death.
In his 50-year career, Waldron recorded more than 100 albums under his own name and more than 70 for other band leaders. He also wrote for modern ballet, and composed the scores of several feature films. As a pianist, Waldron’s roots lay chiefly in the hard bop and post-bop genres of the New York club scene of the 1950s, but with time he gravitated more towards free jazz. He is known for his dissonant chord voicings and distinctive later playing style, which featured repetition of notes and motifs.
As a young man, Jackie McLean recorded with Gene Ammons, Charles Mingus on the seminal Pithecanthropus Erectus, George Wallington, and as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. McLean joined Blakey after reportedly being punched by Mingus. Fearing for his life, McLean pulled out a knife and contemplated using it against Mingus in self-defense. He later stated that he was grateful that he had not stabbed the bassist.
His early recordings as leader were in the hard bop school. He later became an exponent of modal jazz without abandoning his foundation in hard bop. Throughout his career he was known for a distinctive tone, akin to the tenor saxophone and often described with such adjectives as “bitter-sweet”, “piercing”, or “searing”, a slightly sharp pitch, and a strong foundation in the blues.
McLean was a heroin addict throughout his early career, and the resulting loss of his New York City cabaret card forced him to undertake a large number of recording dates to earn income in the absence of nightclub performance opportunities. Consequently, he produced an extensive body of recorded work in the 1950s and 1960s. He was under contract with Blue Note Records from 1959 to 1967, having previously recorded for Prestige. Blue Note offered better pay and more artistic control than other labels, and his work for this organization is highly regarded and includes leadership and sideman dates with a wide range of musicians, including Donald Byrd, Sonny Clark, Lee Morgan, Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Redd, Billy Higgins, Freddie Hubbard, Grachan Moncur III, Bobby Hutcherson, Mal Waldron, Tina Brooks and many others.
Two legendary figures of the Jazz world you need to check into further, both individually and collectively. Although this concert comes toward the end of Waldron’s life (he died a year later) and McLean would follow in 2006, it sacrifices nothing in the way of vibrant, committed playing and youthful energy.
Great concert with some noteworthy banter at the end of the show, compliments of an open mike. Good times.