MAL WALDRON — What It Is (review)

MAL WALDRON — What It Is album cover Album · 1982 · Avant-Garde Jazz Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Mal Waldron was best known in the States as Billie Holiday's regular pianist and one time Charles Mingus collaborator. Later, he had a strong following in Europe (where he lived for decades) and was a cult figure in Japan as well. Although rooted in hard bop during the early part of his career, Waldron began to experiment over the years. This was especially true during his stay in Europe, where he was apt to take part in free type sessions. Waldron's work with Steve Lacy, in particular, is well regarded among fans of the avant-garde. Waldron's playing has its own quirks, including an almost droneish approach at times, as well as a 'less-than-swing' feel for rhythm, that can be a make-or-break for possible fans.

Even knowing all of Waldron's playing, "What It Is", released on the German Enja label in 1982, is a stand-alone unique album. Unfortunately, it is not always well accepted by casual Waldron fans and critics. The all-star line up on here includes bassist Cecil McBee, former Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond and sax player Clifford Jordan. Even if all of these members in one or another way had some relations with avant-garde jazz, it's possible people expected well-cooked post-bop from a quartet like this, and possibly that is why this album has been in a shade for decades.

Just three long compositions, and all are real hell! High energy free jazz running ahead pushed by Waldron's repetitive drones and almost rock like heavy rhythm section with thunder-like drumming in front of the mix. Clifford Jordan, known generally as a mainstream sax player, demonstrates his freest playing ever, fast, aggressive and melodic all at the same time. In many ways, this quartet sounds ahead of their time and could be easily confused with the next century's young angry heavy free jazz team. It's interesting that this music, recorded in the 80s, demonstrates an alternative to the usual fusion/rock/RnB approach, an alternative which unfortunately has been never developed.

It's not strange that Waldron's earlier fans never accepted this release. Unfortunately, it hasn't been noticed by free jazz listeners as well, since they didn't expect such music coming from Waldron and Co. As a result, one of the greatest albums coming from the often "fruitless 80s" stays unknown for a wider audience until now.
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