Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy 

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For much of his career, visionary soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy has focused on the music of Thelonious Monk; their names have naturally become linked in the minds of many jazz fans. Yet his duo partner here, marvelously melancholic pianist Mal Waldron, may actually have closer ties to that idiosyncratic genius. He began exploring Monk's music in the mid-50s, about when Lacy did--at the time, Monk had attracted little attention for his quirky compositions, and plenty of folks still looked sideways at his heavy touch and artful stumbling at the piano. Waldron even took part in one of Lacy's earliest forays into Monk territory, the 1958 LP Reflections (OJC). More important, in the late 50s, when even those musicians who'd started to pay lip service to Monk's originality shied away from the very heart of that originality--his unusual keyboard technique--Waldron sought to incorporate it into his own style. Specifically, he adopted Monk's brittle attack, sparse left-hand voicings, and unexpected right-hand accents--but rather than merely mimic them, he folded them into a distinct persona. Before and after a 1957-'59 stint as Billie Holiday's last accompanist, he applied this style to the music of the burgeoning avant-garde in bands led by Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy--that's him getting the famously out-of-tune piano at the Five Spot to sing hauntingly on the iconic live sets Dolphy recorded there. Speaking 40 years after the fact, I can't say if Waldron learned his shadowy timbres and introspective temperament during these apprenticeships, or if instead he already had those qualities and they landed him the jobs--but his dark, stark, yet nonetheless catchy improvisations are indelible and essential details of recordings by those groups. Despite the 73-year-old Waldron's long history with Lacy, until last month, when they reunited for a Lincoln Center concert in New York, they hadn't played together in a decade; they last shared a stage in Chicago at the 1986 Jazz Festival. Belgian free-jazz piano pioneer Fred van Hove duets with German trombonist Johannes Bauer to open the show. Monday, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Aldo Venga/Agostino Mela.

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