First in an occasional series on underrated jazz pianists
Mal Waldron was one of the finest jazz pianists in the history of this most American art form, but he is sadly
underrated as both performer and composer. Not as well known as such powerhouse pianists as Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, or Oscar Peterson, Waldron, in his career
spanning 50 years, nevertheless stands as a distinctive player and composer. He was restrained and tasteful as an accompanist, while his compositions range from fiery and
innovative to lyrical and haunting. He stands at a point between the hard bop and free jazz eras, belonging to neither camp, but drawing inspiration from the one and greatly
influencing the other.
Waldron is probably best known to jazz fans as Billie Holiday's accompanist from 1957 until her death in 1959. Poet Frank O'Hara gives him
a shout-out in his magnificent "The Day Lady Died":
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.
These lines beautifully express the nature of the musical intimacy between Holiday and Waldron, illustrated here in a 1957 live performance.
Note the way Waldron's playing never overshadows or steps away from Holiday's vocals but instead walks alongside them, almost a second
voice in duet.
Waldron studied in his early days with classical composer Karol Rathaus who introduced him to Chopin, Brahms, and Satie, among others. He
never lost his love for classical music, as evidenced by this jazzy version of Erik Satie's "Désespoir Agréable."
One of his best known compositions, thanks to John Coltrane having recorded it three times, is "Soul Eyes, here performed by Waldron,
accompanied by saxophonist Steve Lacy and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel.
Not only a great composer, Waldron was a stellar player both solo and in ensemble settings. One of his most powerful performances took
place in the live performance memorialized in Eric Dolphy's masterpiece recording, Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot. The first nine minutes have Waldron comping on his own
"Fire Waltz," driving Dolphy's incredible quintet, comprising greats Booker Little, Ed Blackwell, and Richard Davis, to amazing heights of improvisational fury. Then at 9:14
on the video, he steps out for his remarkable solo, a mini-masterpiece of its own, leading to Dolphy and Little's final restatement of the theme. The entire set is brilliant
and well worth acquiring. Waldron holds his own and then some among his high-powered companions.
Finally, listen to a lovely example of Waldon's gentler (but never soft) style, again featuring Eric Dolphy, this time on clarinet, along
with a young Ron Carter, whose exquisite pizzicato performance on cello is a particular joy. "Warm Canto" will haunt the listener's imagination whether on the first or the
I have only been able here to give the briefest of introductions to this American master. For more about Mal Waldron,
visit his Wikipedia page and check out this very informative article that I consulted for some of the information I shared in this essay.