One more time
Sketch ske333023

A Beautiful Day
Palmetto PM-2085

Putting a lie to the shibboleth that jazz is a young man’s art, two of the most distinctive pianists of the 1950s and 1960s continue to showcase their unique talents.

But Mal Waldron (b: 1926) and Andrew Hill (b: 1937) have chosen much different vehicles with which to express their iconoclasm.

New York-born, but longtime European expatriate Waldron has conceived of a disc that’s like a collection of interrelated short stories. Gorgeously recorded, the eight tunes here are solid and succinct showcases for his piano playing, usually seconded by Jean-Jacques Avenel’s bass and, on a couple of tracks, by old friend Steve Lacy’s distinctive soprano saxophone.

Chicago-born Hill, who made his Manhattan reputation in the mid-1960s, has turned out the jazz equivalent of a blockbuster novel. Although his disc is only about six minutes longer than Waldron’s — and serendipitously recorded only days earlier — he uses the colors available from a big band of 16 musicians to allow him to realize grander designs.

What strikes you most immediately about the older pianist’s disc, is how Waldron has refined his art so that it’s both focused and dramatic. As arguably the avant-garde keyboard link between Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, his playing has been called “unmelodic” for so long that it’s surprising to hear how pianistically pure it sounds. On “The Seagulls of Kristiansund”, for instance, the slower tempo and strong two-handed voicings produce what could be a dramatic, mini-concerto, complete with bird-like cries from Avenel’s arco style.

This is a partnership of equals, as the pianist makes clear on “Rites of Initiation”, the longest track. Waldron’s note choice builds up in ascending crescendos, sweeping everything in front of it like an advancing army, with the woody bass the auxiliary tank division of the battle. By the finale, the pianist is demonstrating gentle Swing tempos that could almost replicate Gershwin ballads.

That shouldn’t really surprise people, though. Unlike certain neo-cons, Waldron wasn’t born with a style, but evolved it over the years. While his associations with the likes of Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus and Billie Holiday are well known, he started off working for Swing bandleader Lucky Millinder and tenor saxist Ike Quebec. So on the finger snapping “Blues for JJ’s Bass”, he mixes straightahead modern swinging with a traditional blues melody. Put the avant relationships aside and the interaction between him and the bassist could be that of Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown on any one of a thousand gigs.

Again surprisingly, when another man who has been so supposedly avant-garde for so long, Avenel’s long-time employer Lacy amplifies this underlying apparent traditionalism. On “You” — an appropriate title — Lacy and Waldron, who first recorded together on an all-Monk LP in 1958 could be Sidney Bechet and Willie “The Lion” Smith in 1940. Lacy states the theme with a wide, wide vibrato, while the pianist elaborates it in a stride style. Low key, but powerful and well modulated, the bassist stretches his strings here for his most impressive solo of the date.

It would seem that contemporary mainstream jazz has finally caught up with Waldron’s and Lacy’s contributions, which no longer frighten the more stable types. This is made abundantly clear as the CD ends with “Soul Eyes”, the pianist’s most famous composition. Stately as a sonata under its composer’s fingers, the bass accompaniment is note perfect, allowing Waldron to intermingle quotes from other tunes and variations on the theme. But it’s Lacy who states the head at nearly the final minute with a moderate, legato open horn reading.

If the so-called straight jazz world has finally caught up with Waldron at his age, one would hope that Hill, 11 years his junior doesn’t have to wait the equivalent length of time to be given his due. Unlike Waldron, who was ignored or taken for granted until his consistent excellence was finally accepted during his expatriation, Hill’s challenge is getting people to think past his classic Blue Note albums of the mid-1960s.

Those sessions featuring tenor men Joe Henderson and Sam Rivers, Dolphy and drummers Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones among others were exceptional all right, but he was playing and writing good music before that, as well as now. A product of Chicago’s South Side, whose music was influenced by an amalgam of blues, gospel, swing, Monk and German composer/theorist Paul Hindemith, with whom he briefly studied, Hill has spent much of the past two decades as an academic.

But he hasn’t lost his knack for writing, as the eight tracks on this CD, recorded live at New York’s new Birdland in January of this year demonstrate. Much more than a so-called “kicks” band for otherwise employed sidemen, Hill’s is a listening band with subtle, formal and almost didactic arrangements. With more than one instrument always playing at any one time, this is an ensemble of voicings and color — think Gil Evans and Teddy Charles — not Frank Foster or Neal Hefti.

As a matter of fact, the opening track, the only flag waver, was arranged by trumpeter Ron Horton, a member of the Jazz Composers Collective as well as Hill’s on-again-off-again sextet. While the treatment of “Divine Revelation” might have reminded Hill of big bands he heard growing up, such as the one led by his first mentor Earl “Fatha” Hines, the tenor saxophone solos from Greg Tardy and Aaron Stewart are strictly in a multiphonic post-ASCENSION mode.

“J DI” is the only other uptempo blow out, though after a tuba intro by Jose D’Avila, it’s set up as a showcase for J.D. Parron’s baritone saxophone. A compendium of freak notes, double tonguing, guttural growls and key pops, Parron bites his reed long and hard enough to frequently echo out two notes at once. Moving from one end of the beast to the other as he solos, the baritone man is definitely in command. But this is still so much a group effort that unison section work takes place even as he’s upfront.

Tardy and alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich — two other Hill sextet members — are featured in a similar way on the title track. Working out of an Albert Ayler bag the tenor plays hide-and-seek with the more straightahead alto here, though this is in contrast with the rubato, hawk-like cries Ehrlich produces from his bass clarinet earlier on “Faded Beauty”. Later, the inside/outside alto heads for its highest register, working off Dave Ballou’s piercing trumpet as the two saxes hocket up from within the massed sound of the band. “A Beautiful Day’s” distinctive theme appears and reappears throughout, along with some gritty flute work from John Savage, reminiscent of another Hill employer , Rahsaan Roland Kirk. In contrast to Ehrlich, though, his initial flute flight on “Faded Beauty” is a little too Jean-Pierre Rampal-like.

While Waldron’s disc is a pianistic showcase, Hill appears to be featuring anyone else but his astringent piano playing throughout. There may be a reason for this. Although he turns out some impressive right-handed chords on “5 Mo” that are sort of half brawny honky tonk and half hesitant Monkish, and busies himself with runs and quasi-off-key cadences with the dark crevices of the keyboard in “New Pinnochio”, his playing seems more mid-ground than foreground. Jiggling cacophony from the horn sections adds a lot more to these pieces than his driven piano notes. Recall though that it’s his lateral thinking that keeps the arrangements away from cookie cutter hard bop or expected big band riffs.

That tune, for instance, has Tardy playing arpeggios against Scott Colley’s bowed bass. Meanwhile on “Bellezza” the blocks of variegated sounds are pierced by dinosaur-like growls from D’Avila’s tuba after Horton exhibits a three ring circus full of mid-range, half-valve and a few spit kiss techniques in front of the undulating orchestra.

These are two different ways of showing it, but Hill and Waldron have certainly put the lie to the idea that jazz creativity stops around retirement age. Certainly either of them is more inventive than any number of younger traditionalists.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: One: 1. All Alone 2. Rites of Initiation 3. You* 4. Blues for JJ’s Bass 5. The Seagulls of Kristiansund 6. Waltz for Marianne 7. In the Land of Clusters 8. Soul Eyes*

Personnel: One: Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone)*; Mal Waldron (piano); Jean-Jacques Avenel (bass) [all tracks but 1 and 7])

Track Listing: Beautiful: 1. Divine Revelation 2. Faded Beauty 3. Bellezza 4. 5 Mo 6. J. Di 7. A Beautiful Day 8. 11/8

Personnel: Beautiful: Ron Horton, Dave Ballou, Laurie Frinck, Bruce Staalens (trumpets); Charlie Gordon, Joe Fiedler, Mike Fahn (trombones); José D’Avila (tuba); John Savage (alto saxophone, flute); Marty Ehrlich (alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute); Greg Tardy (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet); Aaron Stewart (tenor saxophone); J.D. Parron (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet); Andrew Hill (piano); Scott Colley (bass); Nasheet Waits (drums)