Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On record: Mal Waldron's Crowd Scene

I'm starting to realize that Mal Waldron was a career-long master of the quintet form. The classic Five Spot sessions from July of 1961—co-led by Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, and featuring Richard Davis on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums—have been some of my favorite jazz records for years. (If you don't know this material, please purchase Volume 1 immediately.) As discussed in the previous post, I've recently become obsessed with a quintet Waldron led 25 years later, a band that also included Ed Blackwell. The Seagulls of Kristiansund and The Git-Go, two albums sourced from the same night of Village Vanguard performance (9/16/86), are both outstanding. Though I haven't yet spent good time with it, I was thrilled to come across this 1984 Waldron bootleg by the same band, with Charlie Rouse, Woody Shaw, Reggie Workman and Blackwell, which includes "Fire Waltz" from the ’61 sessions, as well as a few other Mal favorites.

Over the past couple days, I've turned my attention to a later Waldron quintet release: Crowd Scene, from 1989. This one retains Reggie Workman from the ’86 band, but otherwise brings a whole new cast into the mix. Eddie Moore is on drums (previously, I'd only known him from a great 1987 Waldron/Steve Lacy album called The Super Quartet Live at Sweet Basil), and the frontline consists of Sonny Fortune on alto and Ricky Ford on tenor.

In a way, this is the saxophonists' album. What strikes me about Crowd Scene is how single-minded it is. Unlike the ’86 Vanguard material, which places a premium on diversity and pacing, this later record is all about digging in and vamping so the horn players can blow their brains out. What you have here is two long pieces that cycle over and over through these funky, body-moving rhythmic cells. Fortune and Ford seem entirely game to step into the spotlight. On the first piece, the title track, they're both shrieking to the heavens, getting super raw and soulful. It's awesome to hear the rhythm section churning endlessly as though they're trying to exhaust the saxists. It's a very strange kind of endurance test, where ecstatic freedom arises out of intense stricture.

A lot of commentators have cited a perversity in Waldron's playing, as though the pianist derived some sort of strange thrill out of playing so obsessively and repetitively. Ethan Iverson touched on that a bit in his aforelinked essay, and a blogger at The KingCake Crypt hinted at a similar idea in a post on Crowd Scene:

So here is the deal; don't try to read or study to this - it won't work! Listen to it like you were seeing it live - it should be loud and you should be stoned (whatever that means to YOU).

I heartily agree that this is not an analytical jazz, for players or listeners. You have to turn it up, turn off your brain and feel it. There's no real good answer to the question of why Waldron would want to dig in and just loop these cycles so stubbornly. But the results are special. If the ’86 and even the ’61 Waldron quintet sessions share a certain jazz-club decorum, this one (recorded in the studio, I believe) feels unleashed, obnoxious, relentless, snarling. There's still beauty and form, but it's about seeing how far you can push that form without exploding it. There's a huge amount of tension in this sort of practice that you can't really get at when you're playing entirely free, or when you're moving too rapidly from soloist to soloist. This is the sound of a band straining against a very short leash. Another aspect of the quintet genius of Mal Waldron.

P.S. Both Crowd Scene and its companion volume, Where Are You? (recorded at the same session), are available as absurdly cheap Amazon downloads; the ’Zon seems to have overlooked the fact that jazz records sometimes have very long track lengths and deemed that any two-song album should retail for under $3! Same goes for Seagulls and The Git-Go, not to mention an earlier Soul Note classic recently praised here, the Max Roach Quartet's Scott Free. And if you'd like to try before you buy, all of these records are streamable on Spotify.

P.P.S. In the last post, I mentioned that Ted Panken had covered Waldron recently. After writing, I noticed that Clifford Allen had offered his perspective on the great man as well.

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