Friday, August 19, 2011
On record: Mal Waldron's The Seagulls of Kristiansund
As mentioned here previously, one of my favorite things about Spotify is the complete access it grants to the Black Saint/Soul Note catalogs. Browsing the other day, I stumbled upon a Soul Note record I'd heard back in college but never revisited: Mal Waldron's The Seagulls of Kristiansund: Live at the Village Vanguard. Like Max Roach's Scott Free, this is a major work, not just of the ’80s, but of jazz.
The band immediately struck me: Charlie Rouse on sax, Woody Shaw on trumpet, Reggie Workman on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. All hardbop heavy hitters, some—like Waldron—with avant-garde tendencies. You can hear vigorous uptempo swing on the first track, a reading of "Snake Out," Waldron's signature tune. But the one I keep coming back to is the title track, a true jazz dirge.
If there's one thing I love in jazz, it's that—those pieces that move beyond ballad-hood into an almost oppressive sadness. Grachan Moncur's "Love and Hate" (heard on Jackie McLean's Destination Out) comes to mind, as does Booker Little's "Man of Words" (Out Front) and Andrew Hill's "Dedication" (Point of Departure). I just love these works that take their time and trudge along, ideally forcing an emotional engagement on the part of both the soloists and the listener.
This is one of those pieces, crawling along at a near-stillness, Waldron and Workman laying out a spare framework in the background, like a bruise deepening into blue and purple over the course of almost half an hour. I'm not sure I've ever heard Ed Blackwell playing this slowly and sparely before. I think of him as an almost jolly mid- or uptempo player, most at home feelwise when he can really crackle and make the most of his marchy cadences. Here, he's not even playing time, just a pitter-patter of cymbals and other metallic implements. Waldron and Workman are implying a tempo, but it's really more of an ooze, a melting forward of time.
The soloists get down deep with it, wading in the muck. You have these players (Rouse and Shaw) who were known as hardbop workhorses, typically heard burning along in muscular fashion. Here they're forced to engage with the poetry and stillness of Waldron's conception. Shaw's playing really puts his feelings on the line. I always recall in the liner notes of Point of Departure how Kenny Dorham describes hearing "Dedication" and being brought to tears. Again, I think of these really hardass golden-age jazzers being stopped in their tracks by something so SLOW and non-virtuosity-oriented, where you've just got this sprawling canvas and you have to paint a picture with one of those tiny watercolor brushes.
Blackwell and Workman carrying on a dialogue of micro sounds: taps on the rims of the drums, little arco squeaks. And Waldron hanging out in back like the grim reaper. In a brilliant essay on Mal, Ethan Iverson referred to these three players collectively as the Evil Trio. Here, it's more like the Heavy Hearted Trio, but I see what he's getting at.
Once the horns are gone, Waldron wades in, singing so slowly and beautifully through the keys. I just love this idea and vibe so much. Jazz to me is not about the toe-tapping and the finger-snapping and the brassy glitz. It's about this kind of meditation, where you're dropped in an environment and you're forced to get to know all of it, to explore in the dark. Workman knows about this, and his bass solo isn't a "bass solo," where the music stops and the showing off happens. It sounds like a Spanish guitar, thrumming along underneath Waldron's purplish note cloud.
I have listened to this piece on repeat all week. As I stated before, the rest of the record (the marathon "Snake Out" and one short piece) is very good. There's also another Soul Note record, The Git-Go, that was recorded during the same Vanguard set (from September 16, 1986) that yielded Seagulls. It's also on Spotify, though I haven't spent good time with it yet. But "Seagulls of Kristiansund" is one of those performances that removes itself from an album, from a discography, from a genre even. It stands out as a moment of communion. A word like "stunning" doesn't even begin to carry the proper weight.
*Ted Panken posted two archival interviews with the late Waldron earlier this week, in honor of the 86th anniversary of the pianist's birth.
*Iverson's Waldron post, linked above, brought me to this wonderful video of the quintet discussed above. It could very well have been recorded at the same 1986 run that produced Seagulls.