Finally, the great pianist Mal Waldron (1925-2002) is starting to get his due. Waldron had a career marked by two illustrious phases, and his style can be heard in several of today’s leading pianists. In his early career, he was Billie Holiday’s final accompanist, and his sideman credits included significant recordings with John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. Following a nervous breakdown and lengthy rehabilitation during which he taught himself how to play again, Waldron’s late 20th-century work is highlighted by exceptional small groups and extraordinary duets with fellow Monk expert Steve Lacy. In this part of his career, he developed a dark, almost incantational style focused on repeated motifs, usually with his left hand.
Searching in Grenoble is an excellent primer on the pianist, finding him gradually developing his late career style. There are several hallmarks to that style; one is that his music is deliberate and unhurried, and that’s showcased on the opening track, “Mistral Breeze/Sieg Haile,” which gently unfolds and stuns over the course of 23 minutes. The track showcases Waldron’s interest in repeating motifs until they become an obsession. Sometimes these figures become the basis for intense call and response, and other times he moves onto a new phrase to sculpt. Waldron is at his most elegant on “Soul Eyes,” a track that Coltrane helped make into a jazz standard. His take on “Fire Waltz,” a highlight of his time in Dolphy’s band, is lean, almost ascetic. The standout of this set is “Snake Out,” a piece that would become a staple of his work in the ’80s and ’90s, especially in duets with Lacy. Here his left-hand figures become ritualistic, offsetting a right that becomes equally repetitive. It makes for a unique, cathartic sound.