Mal Waldron - The Call

Mal Waldron
The Call

Released 1971 on JAPO/ECM
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 20/06/2002ce

There's a common notion that everything released on ECM has a particular "sound" that the label's detractors describe as cold, technical, bland and even muzak-orientated. Maybe limited exposure to recent releases by the likes of Keith Jarrett or Jan Garbarek would reinforce that view. But you can't generalise on nigh-on 800 releases in more than 30 years, especially when there are diamonds such as this little wonder among the earlier records.

Mal Waldron, famous as a Billie Holiday accompanist and Eric Dolphy sideman in the late 50's, made only two albums for ECM. The first, 'Free At Last' in 1969, was the label's first release, a tentative fling with free jazz that in reality stayed closer to convention than invention. The second, reviewed here, was a whole different kettle of piranhas. Again chosen to launch a new label - this time ECM's adventurous JAPO imprint - 'The Call' saw Waldron behind a Fender Rhodes (or similar) instead of his usual acoustic piano, forming an epic one-time-only quartet with Eberhard Weber on self-styled electric bass (one of his earliest recorded appearances), Fred Braceful on drums, and - significantly - sometime Embryo organist Jimmy Jackson. And what an almighty noise they made over two side-long tracks recorded one day in 1971.

The title track begins with an almost Booker T bluesy riff initiated by Jackson, then Weber, then Braceful. Waldron enters with four widely-fingered chords that seem to both compliment and argue with the opening riff before, just as the whole thing starts to become recognisable, everyone appears to fly off into their own stratosphere. The sound is hard to define: although these are mostly "jazz" musicians (inverted commas intentional), the vibe is more akin to European space rock than anything else. But fusion of the Weather Report or Return To Forever ilk this most certainly ain't. The simultaneous soloing, with Jackson particularly impressive, continues for a good ten minutes but always holds the interest because of the sheer fun these guys seem to be having making this unholy racket. Then, things calm a little, and everyone gets an individual spotlight. Weber's solo especially stands out as a triumph of inspiration and subtlety, making you wish he'd strayed more often into rock territory than his somewhat elitist chosen field. Finally, two minutes from the end (and after a drum solo that miraculously avoids tedium) that opening riff returns and the side ends. And I feel, well, just satisfied, and ever so slightly high.

Side Two is entitled 'Thoughts', and is basically a slightly slower, more ethereal variation on its predecessor, blessed with a glorious opening and closing tune that alternates between optimism and anxiety. If anything, the interaction and solo showcases are even more inspired here, even if there's less visceral excitement in the music. Again, Weber shines. Indeed, it is to Waldron's credit that, fine though his own contributions to his "compositions" are, he knows exactly when to let go and let his companions show their soul. And soul, real joyous soul, is what infuses this almost wholly improvised, yet never inaccessible, record.

Sadly, this terrific combination never recorded again, although Waldron played with Jackson on Embryo's 'Steig Aus' album in 1972, the highlight of which was an all-out Krautrock version of the title track of the album discussed here. Good though that was, the original is the best. Even more regretably, 'The Call' has, in common with most of the JAPO catalogue, yet to hit CD. However, good quality used vinyl copies show up from time to time in places like Ultima Thule in Leicester or Ray's Jazz Shop in London. If you come across the album, in its (very un-ECM) torn-wallpaper designed sleeve, give it a go. It straddles the chasm between rock and jazz without a hint of fusion blandness.

(Stop press @ 26/04/06: 'The Call' has finally been issued on CD by ECM Japan, in a beautiful replica sleeve. Don't hesitate!)

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