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'Searching in Grenoble' showcases the unique style of jazz pianist Mal Waldron


This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Mal Waldron spent most of his career in Europe. Earlier in the 1950s, Waldron played in Charles Mingus's explosive band, made jam session records with John Coltrane and was Billie Holiday's last accompanist. Then Waldron reinvented his style. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Mal Waldron always proceeded at his own pace.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: In the 1950s, Mal Waldron was a fleet (ph) swinging modern jazz pianist. Then he had a nervous breakdown in 1963 and forgot what he sounded like. He tried to reconstruct his style from listening to his old records and came up with something new that he'd barely hinted at before. Ever after, Waldron described his mature style as economical, yes, but also obsessive. He'd milk a phrase or a couple of notes dry before moving on and doing it again. His solos inch ahead and double back like Gertrude Stein's prose.


WHITEHEAD: Mal Waldron, 1978, from the newly issued concert "Searching In Grenoble." Breaking with the past, he moved to Europe in 1965. His solo career really took off in the '70s, the heyday of minimalism, when his short, repeated figures, slow change-ups, and long, hypnotic sequences fit right in. Even so, interviewing Waldron in 1997, I was surprised to hear him invoke the word minimalism in connection with his music. He accepted that certain ideas are in the air at a given time. Actually, he put it more poetically. Music is like taking a shower. Let it wash over you without worrying about where the water has been before.


WHITEHEAD: Mal Waldron's playing has compelling, if off and slow, momentum. Like a few other jazz greats, such as his frequent duo partner saxophonist Steve Lacy, the pianist never sounds like he's in a hurry. In that respect, his playing might resemble Thelonious Monk's. Mal makes that connection himself on the standard "It Could Happen To You," repeatedly quoting the riff from Monk's tune "Locomotive."


WHITEHEAD: Other improvising pianists have attested to Waldron's influence such as Cecil Taylor and Japan's Yosuke Yamashita. Waldron was very big in Japan, not least because he backed Billie Holiday at the end of her life. Contemporary pianist Matthew Shipp is also a Waldron fan. He's interviewed in the album's notes, and it's easy to hear why. Shipp likes to bang around on the piano's low end, a sound Mal Waldron knew well. This is from his "Snake Out."


WHITEHEAD: Mal Waldron also had a gentler side. He plays the melody of his ballad "All Alone" in trembling high notes as if evoking Billie Holiday's fragile voice in her last years. Despite his influence on other pianists, nobody sounds like Mal Waldron, and the two-CD set "Searching In Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert" is a good introduction. I wouldn't call it exceptional Waldron, but it is typical Mal, a pianist as consistent as he was unique.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Searching In Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert" by pianist Mal Waldron.

If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our interview with Margaret Burnham, who created a project to research little-known cases of racial violence in the Jim Crow era, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support today from Al Banks. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.