Mal Waldron

Pianist Mal Waldron (1926-2002) had a brooding chordal style, initially influenced by Thelonious Monk but quite individual. He was flexible enough to fit into both hard-bop and avant-garde settings.

Originally Waldron played jazz on the alto sax and classical music on piano but, while at Queens College, he decided to switch to jazz piano. In the early 1950s he worked with Ike Quebec, Big Nick Nicholas, and some r&b bands. His associations with Charles Mingus (1954-1956) and Billie Holiday as her last accompanist (1957-1959) were much more high profile.

During that era, Waldron was often hired by the Prestige label to supervise record dates, contribute new songs, and run their jam session recordings. During 1957-1961 he also led six albums of his own for Prestige. Mal/1 is a quintet date with trumpeter Idrees Sulieman and altoist Gigi Gryce and, although Waldron’s originals are obscure, they are well worth reviving. Mal/2 has the pianist leading two overlapping sextets, both of which include John Coltrane. Waldron also co-led an album with Coltrane, Wheelin’ and Dealin,’ that has been made available under the saxophonist’s name.

Mal/3 is a bit more unusual. Waldron heads a sextet comprised of trumpeter Art Farmer, flutist Eric Dixon, Calo Scott on cello, bassist Julian Euell, and drummer Eddie Jones. His wife Elaine Waldron contributes vocals to the wordless “Portrait of a Young Mother” and “For Every Man There’s a Woman.” Mal/4 is Waldron’s first trio set, featuring bassist Addison Farmer and drummer Kenny Davern. 1959’s Impressions, also a trio outing with Farmer and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, has three standards and four Waldron originals including his three-part “Overseas Suite.”

1961’s The Quest features the pianist in an advanced setting with altoist Eric Dolphy and tenor-saxophonist Booker Ervin. It points toward Mal Waldron’s future directions. Waldron worked with Abbey Lincoln, wrote three film scores, and permanently moved to Europe in 1965, settling in Munich. He kept busy during his European years, leading trios, sometimes collaborating with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, and continuing to evolve as one of jazz’s great individualists.