Mal Waldron Trio – Free At Last Extended Edition – ECM Records 

by | Dec 27, 2019 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Mal Waldron Trio – Free At Last Extended Edition – ECM Records ECM 1001 7798632 (1969/2109) 180-gram stereo double vinyl with full-sized 12-page booklet, 69:27 ****1/2:

(Mal Waldron – piano; Isla Eckinger – double bass; Clarence Becton – drums)

In the myriad evolution of 1969 jazz, there was a pioneering moment. A new German label ECM Records was partnering with jazz pianist Mal Waldron in a prestigious debut. Waldron was renowned for being the house arranger, composer and pianist at Prestige Records. He worked with John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Kenny Burrell, Art Farmer and many others. Waldron was also known for his stint as Billie Holiday’s musical director and accompanist. He was involved with cooperative efforts in poetry and painting. After a life-threatening breakdown in 1963, Waldron joined an elite group of jazz musicians who resumed their careers in Europe. In 1967, he moved to Munich and formed a trio with Swiss double bassist Isla Eckinger and American dummer Clarence Becton. The 1969 album, Free At Last introduced a second phase of Mal Waldron and a trend-setting jazz label.

ECM Records has released an updated 180-gram vinyl of Mal Waldron Trio Free At Last Extended Edition. It is an opportunity to revisit an influential jazz artist in transition. As described by first person in the liner notes, Waldron is experimenting with “free jazz’ conceptual imagery. He bemoans the generally misused context of this genre. In this album, rhythmic pretext is at the core of the music. Side I opens with “Rat Now”. This ten-minute jam exerts a droning pulse with left-hand repeat and right hand chords. It is moody and soulful. There is a shift to an accelerated 3/4 time signature with Waldron adding pulse-driven piano accents, unlike typical jazz solos. Double bassist Isla Eckinger unfurls an extended solo run that maneuvers from prominent licks to hushed tones. Drummer Clarence Becton slides in with deft cymbal work, and eventually incorporates the full drum kit. He adds a funky resonance. Switching gears, “Balladina” is at times, quasi-atonal with an aura of darkness. Waldron’s atmospheric technique involves trills and includes melodic inflection as the trio unite in a loping tempo. Again, the rhythmic commitment (including a two-chord vamp) moves the number. “1-3-234” is grittier and displays a frenetic bebop intensity. Simply put, the trio swings on this one.

Side II is decidedly explosive. “Rock My Soul” is the longest track on the album, and its most scintillating. After a stout repeat left hand, the band surrounds the pianist with bop aesthetics. Waldron’s solo is typical with its punctuated rhythm consisting of left hand chords and right hand notation. The motifs have an exotic feel to them. Eckinger unleashes another hard driving, then toned down solo. Mal returns with syncopated crashing resonance and Becton delivers another memorable drum solo. On the sole cover, “Willow Weep For Me” (from the earlier Billie Holiday collaboration), Waldron adopts a lyrical, eloquent approach. It is bluesy with sophisticated dynamics. The trio lets the melodic interpretation develop without excessive improvisation. In contrast, “Boo” kicks off with a menacing, crisp left-hand vamp. Waldron sets a one note bass and builds off that with style as the trio morphs into an adroit swing break. Sides III and IV have alternative or variations (all lengthier) of four tracks. “1-3-234 (var.)” is just as stirring with more freewheeling attitude. Drum and double bass combine in a dual solo. On “Balldina (var.)”, all of the moodiness is present with subtle changes in direction. The “Boo” variation is hard-charging and compelling in its ferocity. A long version of “Willow Weep For Me” gives the listener an additional two minutes of Waldron’s ethereal fluency.

Mal Waldron Trio Free At Last Expanded Edition is another significant achievement for ECM. The sound quality of the re-mastered vinyl is superb (kudos to original engineer Kurt Rapp and producers Manfred Eicher and Manfred Scheffner). There is a palpable intimacy to the music. The instrumental precision of piano, drums and double bass is rendered with a delicate touch. The overall mix is balanced and the instruments blend organically. The gatefold packaging is lavish, especially the stunning black and white cover by Rufus Vedder.

Side I: Rat Now; Balladina; 1-3-234
Side !!: Rock My Soul; Willow Weep For Me; Boo
Side III: 1-3-234 (variation) Balladina (variation)
Side IV: Boo (variation); Willow Weep For Me (long version)

-Robbie Gerson


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