52 Jazz Tracks for 2021 (31. ‘Johnny Come Lately’ – Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy, Sempre Amore, 1986)

The 31st of Jon Turney’s weekly selection (introduced HERE) sees an Ellington tune polished to a new lustre.

Sempre Amore album cover

The pianist and soprano saxophone player here were both immensely fertile artists. Yet something extra special seems to happen when they play together. I’m reminded of a phrase Stan Tracey used when he and John Surman first tried out playing in duo: “instant sunshine”.

Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy’s partnership is well documented, mostly on live albums where they stretch out, often on Monk tunes and on pieces of their own. But on this studio album they play an all Ellington-Strayhorn programme, creating a set of exquisite miniatures.

This marvellous opener is brisk by Waldron’s standards. Hypnotic is the word for his rhythmically insistent, emphatically repetitive approach, often unfolding small variations that build an improvisation into a larger edifice.

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There’s just a little of that here, in a solo passage that comes after some wry, almost sardonic, variations on the theme from Lacy. He states it so beautifully at the start, though, that the mood set there endures.

And it’s very much an album that deals in depth of mood, often a melancholic one. The treatments here are intent on burnishing the originals to a new sheen. It’s hard to think of two people better fitted to do that, and they delivered a small classic.

*Note: when I wrote this post, on Friday, the track in question was accessible on Spotify. Today (Monday) it isn’t! Here’s a Youtube video of the duo playing the same piece. It’s not the version I first heard, but seems to be equally good.

More on this recording on Jon’s Bristol Jazz Log

Read Jon’s introduction to the ’52 tracks’ series
Week 30: Air – Chicago Breakdown
Spotify playlist for the series

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