This 50-year-old recording sounds like it could have been made this year. That’s partly because of the playing of pianist Waldron and his trio, which was so forward-looking at the time that its effect is to be timeless. This is jazz of a high order that belongs to no one era and to all of them. Another reason for it timeless quality is the superb quality of the recording, which was by Manfred Eichner on what was then his fledgling label ECM. In fact Free At Last was the very first release on ECM, in 1969, and it’s now being re-released as a deluxe vinyl double-LP, with bonus tracks.
Waldron, who died in 2002, was a prolific and highly respected composer, arranger and player who began his lengthy career in the early 1950s in the early years of bebop. He studied in Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop and later played with many many of the era’s greats. As the house pianist, arranger and composer at Prestige REcords, he was the author of hundreds of tuens and played on albums with John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Art Farmer, and many others. After a breakdown caused by drug use and stress, he moved to Europe where he spent the rest of his career.
By 1969 when he made this recording, he was leaning in to free jazz, and Free At Last incorporates many of that form’s elements, but in ways that were different from most free jazz you’ll hear. As Waldron explained in the original release’s liner notes: “Free jazz for me does not mean complete anarchy or disorganised sound. In my vocabulary disorganised sound still means noise. And don’t forget that the definition of music is organised sound. Therefore in this album you will hear me playing rhythmically instead of soloing on chord changes.” That adds up to music that in some ways anticipates such forms as trance, particularly with the forceful playing of bassist Isla Eckinger and the propulsive yet melodic playing of drummer Clarence Ecton, as they accompany Waldron’s drone-like repetition of dense chords.
The playing on the less rhythmic numbers like “Balladina” sounds quite contemporary even 50 years on, with Waldron’s playing – here a synthesis of Ellington’s percussive and Monk’s dissonant styles – floats with serenity over the more active explorations of the bass and drums.
The album wasn’t reviewed particularly highly at the time, and it may have seemed more backward-looking than many of that year’s releases. This was a big year in the advent of fusion, with, for example, John McLoughlin releasing his first date as a leader and also playing on Miles Davis’s 1969 landmark In A Silent Way sessions.
The original album’s sequencing on both sides is long jam/ballad/straight-ahead bop. “Rat Now” is a perfect intro to this powerful trio, kicking off with drums, then bass, before Waldron comes in with a rumbling, percussive left hand statement that carries on for a minute and a half as the right hand slowly gathers steam and bit by bit the focus switches to the right and the left continues vamping on the same diad. Especially during the thoughtful and adventurous bass and drum solos, you long to see this band on stage. The side finishes with the portentously melancholy “Balladina” and wraps with the wildly complex “1-3-234,” the piano, bass and drums all seemingly playing in different rhythmic schemes yet somehow meshing in an urgent rushing forward to meet the next moment. It may be the most contemporary and “of its moment” piece on the album.
Waldron’s swinging soulful strut “Rock My Soul” kicks off the second side. The ballad here is the romantic “Willow Weep For Me.” (I have to confess I had no idea this was a jazz standard, recorded most memorably by Billie Holiday but also by everyone from Sinatra to Simone before the pop-folk duo Chad and Jeremy had a No. 1 in America with their cover in 1965.) And it wraps with the in your face, charging straight-ahead bop number “Boo,” which has proto-trance elements particularly in the bass and in Waldron’s left-hand vamping.
This reissue fills out the second disc with alternate takes of “1-3-234,” “Balladina,” “Boo,” and “Willow.” The alternate of “Balladina” leads more heavily on the melancholy than the portent, and the variation on “Willow” takes its time and explores the bluesy feeling with great expressiveness.
With Free At Last ECM slipped in almost under the radar, giving little hint at the time except for those who were paying very close attention, of the outsized role it would play in moving serious music forward for the next half-century. This package is a perfect way to put a wrap on ECM’s 50th Anniversary celebrations and to introduce Waldron to a generation of jazz fans who may have forgotten his unprepossessive genius.