Archie Shepp & Mal Waldron – Left Alone Revisited – 180-gram stereo double vinyl Enja Records ENJA 9141-1 (2002)/Pure Pleasure Records (2021), 56:42 ****1/2:
A great tribute to Billie Holiday gets a vinyl upgrade.
(Archie Shepp – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, vocals; Mal Waldron – piano)
In the world of female jazz vocalists, there are many iconic artists. At the top of this list are Ella Fitzgerald (with her phenomenal scat singing), Sarah Vaughan (four-octave range), Nina Simone (incisive socio-political commentary) and of course Billie Holiday. Because of her lilting vocal style and plaintive emotional delivery, Lady Day was a commanding presence. Songs like “Strange Fruit”, “Lady Sings The Blues”, “God Bless The Child” and her unique covers of standards were unforgettable. Her various personal struggles (including her premature death) contributed to her eternal legacy, along with the trademark white gardenia in her hair. In addition to an Oscar-nominated film biography, there have been several musical tributes to Ms. Holiday from the likes of Carmen McRae, Etta James, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Tony Bennett, Sam Cooke and Anita O’Day.
Another of these tribute albums, Left Alone Revisited was recorded by saxophonist Archie Shepp and pianist Mal Waldron in 2002. Pure Pleasure Records has released a 180-gram double vinyl of this project. Side A opens with the sumptuous ballad, “Easy Living”. Shepp’s deeply soulful translation includes some tonal stretching. Waldron low-key piano is exquisite and complements the saxophone. On his solo, Waldron demonstrates a silky touch and distills the inherent melancholy of the song. “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is classic “Show Gershwin”. With Waldron providing a relaxed bounce, Shepp’s restrained solo is rich in texture with vibrato. Waldron injects a subtle up tempo against his steady left hand. Shepp changes to soprano on another eternal standard “Everything Happens to Me”. His fluid play is countered by sharper tonality. Waldron folds in concise phrasing and consummate harmony. “Left Alone” was co-written by Holiday and Waldron. Waldron’s ethereal interpretation captures the profound emotional impact that Lady Day came to represent in her art. Waldron’s adroit chord maneuvering and timing is impeccable. His right hand notation is flawless. Shepp returns to tenor (with some piercing shrillness at times) to further explore the sad resonance. It is a fortunate piece of jazz history that both Holiday and Vaughan recorded “When Your Lover Has Gone”. Digging into that undeniable tradition of bluesy jazz, Waldron’s lilting piano runs are compelling with some New Orleans flair.
Great jazz musicians can re-imagine simple pop tunes into modern contexts. “I Only Have Eyes For You” enjoyed mainstream success with Dick Powell and Eddy Duchin. There was even a catchy doo wop version by The Flamingos. But this arrangement in 3/4 time is fresh and inventive. In a real change of pace, “Blues For 52nd Street” is structured in classical blues and exudes a raw quality that connects to this genre that is so closely associated with jazz. Waldron is brilliant and Archie Shepp adds some gritty vocals. George Gershwin’s legacy is broad with Porgy And Bess among the crowning achievements. So this extended (8:41) cover of “Porgy” is striking for its deliberate pace and faithful homage to this Americana treasure. Shepp’s command of melodic development and Waldron’s expertise at graceful articulation is wonderful. Neither musician overshadows the tune’s elegiac dignity with gratuitous improvisation. On “Lady Sings The Blues”, a relaxed, sorrowful vibe is infused by the duo. A very brief spoken word reprise of “Left Alone” is an interesting and fitting conclusion to this glowing tribute.
Pure Pleasure Records has done an excellent job in re-mastering Let Alone Revisited to 180-gram vinyl. The overall mix is clean and uncluttered. More importantly, it keeps the historical role of jazz in American culture alive.
Side A: Easy Living; Nice Work If You Can Get It; Everything Happens To Me
Side B: Left Alone; When Your Lover Has Gone
Side C: I Only Have Eyes For You; Blues For 52nd Street
Side D: Porgy; Lady Sings The Blues; Left Alone (Spoken Lyrics)