Today would have been pianist and improvising composer Mal Waldron's 86th birthday (he died in 2002). Since I first heard him on record with reedman-composer Eric Dolphy in the 1990s, Waldron has been one of my favorite pianists. That anthemic insistence, coupled with didactic minimal variations and a wistful classicism captured the "intellectual" fascination I had with the music early on, but his emotional power and affable wit have filled the humanist side of the music, which has been the most lasting way in which he has affected me.
Known as an accompanist/collaborator with Billie Holiday in the 1950s, Waldron was the "house pianist" for Prestige records throughout the decade and is one of the most unique voices in hardbop. His work-songs appeal to a strange, obsessive side that isn't always obvious in the music of Bobby Timmons and the Adderleys, but it could be said that they are a foundation of the genre. In the late 1960s, he became associated with the avant-garde after relocating to Europe, frequently working with other unclassifiable expats like Steve Lacy, Fred Braceful, and Charlie Mariano. He even recorded with members of the krautrock ensemble Embryo. Popular in Japan, Waldron recorded numerous sessions for Japanese labels as well as European independents. Walking the line between inside and outside, his vast catalog is one that I can honestly say is entirely worth dipping into.
Below are two very different tracks - the first is a wonderful, knotty arrangement of the standard "The Way You Look Tonight" from 1957, while the second is a sterling example of his "free" period (notice that as busy as it is, metrically it remains very tight) on the French Futura label from 1970. Finally, I highly recommend the documentary Mal by Dutch filmmaker Tom Overberghe, which you can also find on YouTube. Wish I could have met him - he seems like a sweet man and a deep spirit.