CD Review: Mal Waldron Trio “Free at Last”

By Hrayr Attarian

Mal Waldron Trio Free at Last

Mal Waldron – Piano

Isla Eckinger – Bass

Clarence Becton – Drums

In 2019 the influential European label, ECM, celebrated its 50th anniversary. On that occasion they put out a special reissue of their very first release: pianist Mal Waldron’s underappreciated master work, Free at Last. Recorded in Germany in 1969, the set consists of five adventurous Waldron originals and a tender interpretation of “Willow Weep for Me.” Four alternate takes augment the rerelease.

Opening on a high note, the trio launches into a sinewy and energetic interplay on the tense “Rat Now.” After Waldron’s cascading keys build a complex and crystalline melody, Swiss bassist Isla Eckinger takes a lyrical and eloquent solo. His strings reverberate with agility in an intricate dance that hypnotically echoes in the enveloping silence. Crashing cymbals and angular beats mark drummer Clarence Becton’s turn in the spotlight—ushering in a return to the main theme’s heady refrains.

In contrast, “Balladina” is a contemplative and wistful piece. Waldron improvises with reserved passion and touches of delightful dissonance. His percussive chords and arpeggio-filled phrases complement Becton’s rustling brushes and Eckinger’s resonant thumps. As Waldron climbs up and down the scales, he mixes bluesy influences with a definite Western classical sensibilities. The result is thrillingly spontaneous and cleverly multilayered.

The bonus version of the sole standard, simultaneously somber and languid, unfurls with a slow simmer. The group deconstructs the tune effortlessly and with elegance. Waldron’s chiming keys brim with spirituality while Eckinger contributes mellifluous embellishments that also have a Zen serenity to them. The most captivating element of the tune, however, is the sublime and seamless synergy among the three musicians. They overlay their respective performances on a stimulating and warm rendition of composer/lyricist Ann Ronell’s most famous song.

Free At Last’s historical significance is not confined to its position in ECM’s catalogue. It also is one of the recordings that showcases Waldron’s transformative phase from the mainstream to freer sounds. Above all, this is a brilliant and absorbing disc that has stood the test of time. Hopefully, this time around, it will be recognized for the gem it is.