Classic Albums: Mal Waldron, Black Glory

I have a thing for Mal Waldron. A special thing. A Mal Waldron kinda thing which you may think would be about his gentle soulful searching side, The Quest, or perhaps his work as accompanist for Billie Holiday during her last years. And I do. But I also love the other side of Mal Waldron.

I found Black Glory at Academy Records in NYC many years ago. I didn’t know the music, but you know, it was Mal so I bought it. This is a live set, recorded at the Domicile jazz club in Munich in June of 1971, originally released on enja Records. The lineup—Mal Waldron on piano, Jimmy Woode on bass, and Pierre Favre on drums playing all Mal-penned tunes. This is post breakdown Mal—a heroine overdose in 1963 left him unable to play and it took years for him to recover and regain his ability to improvise.

I worked out my solos in advance and played what I had written out, until gradually all my faculties returned.

Side 1 is one track “Sieg Haile”, clocking in at 21:30, while Side 2 is broken down into three tracks, “La Gloire du Noir”, “The Call”, and “Rock My Soul.” If we add up all these words, album  title + track names, I think it’s obvious this isn’t going to be the gentle Mal. And it’s not.

Mal plays clusters of chords and employs repetition to invoke a brooding brewing momentum on “Sieg Haile.” It’s as if, once he states the theme early on, he and the band proceed to tear it to pieces, shredding every bit of march and lock-step reference into a freer form. I hear real violence and anger in this attack, albeit under the control of form and structure, which creates a beautiful tension that never eases up or dissipates.

This energy, a mixture of anger and insistence, continues on Side 2 with opener “La Gloire du Noir.” Nine minutes never felt so short, so tightly packed, so muscular. “The Call” acts as turning point, with the band stating and restating a new theme, replacing tension and constraint with air, space, and hope. “Rock My Soul” is the aftermath, where a freer improvisational form allows each musician to stretch out and dance (on the devil’s grave?).

I hear this record not only as an album, not only as a live performance captured, but also as a story and statement. The beauty of a story told with music without words is it can dwell well beyond what we think when we listen.

If you have 40 minutes to spare, it’s well worth the ride. Where words fail…