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Mal Waldron – ‘Searching In Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert’

Mal Waldron Searching In Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert

(Tompkins Square TSQ5906. Album Review by Liam Noble)

From the first chord you hear on this recording, you know you’re not in for the rarefied, classical air of a Keith Jarrett or Brad Meldhau “recital”. It sounds to me like an upright piano, which perfectly complements the humility and strangeness that go hand in hand on this recording, its twangs and chimes often adding a characterful haze around the heavy, sonorous voicings that Waldron pulls out of it.

“Le Mistral/Sieg Halie”, a kind of medley of sombre melodies, fragments, vamps and tightly rotating figures that often slip unexpectedly into bright major harmonies: it’s as if he’s surprised by his own chords, repeating them in order to make it clear he meant it. There’s a nod to McCoy Tyner’s sound world later in the set, yet it’s infused with a kind of world weary stagger that somehow harks back to Monk, with whom he’s often associated. Changes of tempo, textures and, most dramatically dynamics, assume a huge significance…but the power of this music is in its cumulative sense of ritual.

Matthew Shipp, in one of the many interviews here, sees him as one of the “Black Mystery School Pianists”, a list that includes Monk, Randy Weston, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, amongst others. Interestingly, all these musicians have roots in the fifties and before, re-emerging in the era of the black civil rights movement with a new focus. In Waldron’s case, after a breakdown induced by a heroin overdose, he famously taught himself to play by listening to his own recordings with Billie Holiday, Eric Dolphy, Mingus and Jackie McLean as well as numerous records as a leader. These early works still resonate in the standards here like “It Could Happen To You”, “Soul Eyes” and “I Thought About You”, but it’s as if the slightly slicker, nimbler Waldron of the fifties is pieced back together by this new version of the man himself, the jagged edges left protruding like battle scars. These readings are deeply moving.

And it’s an album best heard in one sitting. I can only say that, after being slightly ambivalent about it at the opening, I found myself completely mesmerised by the end, adjusting to the musical soundscape slowly, as if entering a room in the dark where the surrounding objects gradually reveal themselves. It’s a beautifully paced set, with the last two tunes making a dramatic finale. “Snake Out” is both catchy and abstract, his endlessly rotations of phrases taking on an almost minimalist character, and with “All Alone”, the stark simplicity leaves the audience bathed in mournful, luminous light. The applause is almost a shock, as if the music is too private for people to be there at all. For a long time afterwards, I somehow couldn’t hear any other way of playing the piano. That’s where the mystery is for me: how do you do that?

Searching In Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert is released on 23 September 2022

LINKS: Tomkins Square Records / album description

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