Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On record: Mal Waldron's The Git Go

I've never been a big fan of what I think of as jazz-club jazz, i.e., straight-ahead jazz as it has been performed in clubs for decades. By this I mean jazz that never questions the head-solos-head format, jazz in which the rhythm section holds it down and the horns take their turns, followed by piano, bass and drums.

Sometimes these performances creep up on you, though. The right players can simply execute and still dazzle. You stop worrying about freshness of overall format, and you focus on the freshness of each moment, the way the music feels rather than the way it appears.

I've praised Mal Waldron's The Seagulls of Kristiansund to the heavens over the past couple of weeks. Right now, I'm fixating on The Git Go, another Waldron album recorded on the same night (9/16/86) by the same band (Rouse, Shaw, Workman, Blackwell) at the same club (The Village Vanguard). This might be the finest jazz-club jazz I've ever heard.

You get two loooooong pieces here, each a 20-plus-minute example of jazz-club jazz. One, "Status Seeking," is fast; the other, the title track, is midtempo. You listen to these performances in the background, and it's easy to cast them an "eh." They just sound, for lack of a better word, normal. The musicians play the head; they each solo in turn; they play the head again.

But if you give in to this music a little, I promise you will find a whole world, a trance incarnation of what is called swing. Ed Blackwell is godlike here. I interviewed Chico Hamilton once (sadly, I can't find the piece online just now), and he stressed that he always likes to play quietly, at a dynamic level he likes to call "the danger zone." Ed Blackwell spends the entirety of "The Git Go" in the danger zone, just sort of loping along. But there's so much activity at the micro level. Waldron makes subtle changes to one basic vamp, and the two play very delicate, very quiet cat and mouse as the soloists trance out on top. Workman gets a bit of wiggle room and dances around the beat—he leaves the timekeeping to Blackwell and Waldron.

This is the kind of jazz that only works if you let it, if you have time and attention to spare. The feeling is priceless, though. You feel buoyed—an unbelievable gentleness, coupled with authority. A beat that's barely there but that's branded on your skin. It just. Keeps. Going. And if you ask for more than it can give, it will not deliver. But as is often said of dance music, you learn to react to the tiny changes. When Blackwell switches to brushes for Waldron's piano solo in "Status Seeking," for example, it feels momentous. You learn to identify with the soloists, feel the sheer pleasure Rouse and Shaw feel as they dance delicately over this elemental CHILLNESS/AUTHORITY summoned by Blackwell and Waldron.

This one took me many listens to get. Seagulls is much more of a clear showstopper, with its convention-defying dirge. Nothing head-solos-head about that one, a clear flouting of jazz-club jazz. But dig how deep and stubborn The Git Go is (especially the title track). It cruises, but not on cruise control. Little macro variation, but in the micro, everyone is fully awake, engaged. Waldron messing with the vamp for a bar; Blackwell messing with the beat for a bar, jumping off into a little mini solo, one of those call-and-response figures he does so well. How can you relax so completely yet still be present? There's a life lesson somewhere in there.

Once you put the microscope to it, this is about as unboring as jazz gets, and it's because these are master players, not playing by rote, but playing by feel. You hear their personalities every second, even when they're "merely" keeping time. There's all this talk of breaking up the time, of deconstruction, etc. But can you play time, let the soloist speak and still sound like yourself? That is the challenge of jazz, at its heart. Listen to Ed Blackwell and Mal Waldron on this record and you will hear that challenge met. This is jazz-club jazz, yes, but it is also a prayer to, for and about jazz, a meditation on what it means to express one's individuality within a tradition.


As I mentioned previously, The Git Go is only $1.78 at the Amazon MP3 store. You know what to do.

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