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
Release date: January 1, 1970
A cymbal riff from Clarence Becton introduces this respectable outing from Mal Waldron and company as bassist Isla Eckinger and the bandleader jump in for some enjoyable interplay. Yet what begins as an energetic ride turns somber through Eckinger’s rumination. Such solos lend deeper insight into the goings on, underscored by Waldron’s staccato 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 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, selectively pulling at roots while grafting on new ones, this disc was a suitable vehicle for his raw aesthetic. Its melodies may not stick in your head, but are stepping-stones toward a careful melancholy. And while ECM would vastly improve and enlarge its recording repertoire in the decades to come, there remains something comforting—just shy of innocent—about this album. If anything, this is a jazz of introversion, an intimate and myopic exposition of fleeting interactions that neither invites nor pushes 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, Free at Last is the point of departure for a label that has since never looked back, even as it carries these sounds in its heart.