Jazz pianist Mal Waldron may not have become what one would call a “household name,” but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying on his part. In addition to being a sideman for Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Mingus, he also had an abundant solo career, boasting over 100 releases under his name with plenty of original compositions spread across the whole discography. Mal/2 is but one of them, a 1957 record issued on Prestige featuring three covers and three Waldron originals.
Craft Recordings has restored the original LP design, both front and back, for a new vinyl release. Over 65 years removed from its initial release, Mal/2 won’t blow back anyone’s hair simply because too much has happened in the music world since the late 1950s. That’s to be expected; it would be foolish to believe that a record like this would strike listeners the same way now as it did then. Mal/2, however, still sounds good. Recorded and released after bebop’s initial fade, the record’s red-hot vitality has matured into stunning musicianship. Even if Waldron’s originals didn’t become standards in their own right, they still cling to your brain long after you’ve stopped listening.
Waldron and his band worked on two records during 1957, Mal/2 and The Dealers, with some tracks coming from the same sessions. Ed Thigpen and Art Taylor split the drum duties, and Idrees Sulieman and Bill Hardman did the same on trumpet. Alto saxophone parts were divided between Jackie McLean and Sahib Shihab, the latter of whom also provided baritone sax. Julian Euell played bass on each track, and 30-year-old John Coltrane, who had just one Prestige record to his name, played tenor across the whole album. Rudy Van Gelder captured the entire thing in Hackensack, New Jersey, within just two sessions. These were the days of hit-and-run studio dates when Waldron could get at least eight records in the can over only three years.
Of the three standards covered, Waldron took one from his other job as Bille’s Holiday’s accompanist with “Don’t Explain”, a ballad that keeps the sleepy melody intact thanks to the sultry saxophone lead. “The Way You Look Tonight” is a bit more raucous than other readings, a selection that keeps the combo’s musical acumen in check while still making a horn-filled racket. The band’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On” has a similar bite, putting Coletrane, Sulieman, and Shihab at the front of the mix.
Conversely, “J.M.’s Dream Doll”, composed in honor of McLean and his wife, maintains that late-note, smoky club feel that gladly flew in the face of hard bop. “One By One” glides on a very cool strut, but Waldron’s bright, popping, and aptly named “Potpourri” will stick with you. Assembled from a melodic figure that stretches well beyond just a few bars, this is Waldron’s horn selection performing par excellence, driving the swing home to Taylor’s beat.
There are two crucial things to note about the vinyl reissue. First, you get the six-track album, no bonuses such as “Falling in Love With Love” and “Blue Calypso”. Second, the track listing on the back of the sleeve has placed the three covers on side A and the three originals on side B. But glance at the sticker in the middle of the record, and you’ll see that this isn’t the case. “J.M.’s Dream Doll” comes second, just as it always has. At a slightly hefty 180 grams, the vinyl strangely lacks the middle frequencies (perhaps that’s just a symptom of the past) but otherwise sounds crystal clear.
With a catalog spanning more than 100 releases, your jazz friends might try to talk you into trying a record other than Mal/2 as a point of entry into Mal Walrdon’s discography. The Penguin Guide to Jazz goes out of its way to say that the album has “no classic tracks”. Still, it’s a handsome package overall that perfectly captures the late, great pianist just as he was starting his 40-plus-year roll. Essential? No, not really. But spend some time with it and you certainly won’t regret it.