Mal Waldron Trio: Free at Last (ECM 1001)


Mal Waldron Trio
Free at Last

Mal Waldron piano
Isla Eckinger bass
Clarence Becton drums
Recorded November 24, 1969 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Kurt Rapp
Produced by Manfred Scheffner [sic] + Jazz by Post

The quintessential cymbal riff of “Rat Now” introduces this respectable outing from Mal Waldron and company. Bass and piano immediately join in the fray in an enjoyable interplay. This is music that looks back to its roots and pulls at them selectively. And yet what begins as an energetic ride soon turns somber as Eckinger takes over with a meandering rumination on bass. Such solos give us deeper insight into the goings on, fully underscored by Waldron’s staccato ivory mastication. Ballads are the album’s ventricles. A sweltering slog through love and darkened streets, “Balladina” shines with a hardened beauty all its own, while “Willow Weep for Me” is therapeutic like a good long cry. Both tracks have been strategically placed as penultimate bookends and serve as two-way doors into the struggles on either side. Others, like “1-3-234,” center the listener with much needed uplift from these brooding asides, culminating in the concise and playful “Boo.”

This recording, ECM’s first, represents what was to become the label’s defining edge: namely, the allowance for (and foregrounding of) space in the recording of jazz. Seeing as this was already part of Waldron’s base approach, this disc was an ideal venue for his raw aesthetic. These are not melodies that will necessarily stick in your head, but they are invaluable stepping-stones toward a carefully constructed melancholy. And while ECM would vastly improve and enlarge its recording repertoire in the decades to come, there remains something comfortingly naïve about this album. And even if the energy isn’t always consistent, those moments of unity that do dominate spark flares in an otherwise dark canvas. If anything, this is a jazz of introversion, an intimate and myopic exposition of fleeting interactions that neither invites us nor pushes us away.

As Peter Rüedi has it, “free” meant something quite different to Waldron than it did to the more overtly anarchic figureheads of the waning sixties. It was, rather, “a quality that starts with structure and comes back to structure.” In light of this, one might say that Free at Last is the point of departure for a label that has since never looked back, even as it carries these sounds ever in its heart.

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