ECM capped off its 50th year celebration with a long overdue revamp of the label’s flagship title
The 50th anniversary of ECM might be in the rearview, but it’s never too late to celebrate Manfred Eicher’s innovative jazz imprint.
And while the label–through the course of its half century and counting–was largely known as a breeding ground for such young innovators as Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, it’s very first release came from a man with roots in the original hard bop era. Pianist Mal Waldron first rose to fame as the final music director for Billie Holiday in the years before her untimely death in 1959. But as a leader, he would build up a discography across five decades that includes over 100 titles, not to mention something upwards of 80 other albums where he has appeared as a sideman.
Revisited, with additional takes, texts and photos, Free At Last is the very first ECM session, recorded in Ludwigsburg in November 1969, and hits hard with the force of his work with Mingus and Dolphy over his time with Lady Day.
“This album represents my meeting with free jazz,” Waldron wrote in the original liner notes for the LP. “Free jazz for me does not mean complete anarchy… You will hear me playing rhythmically instead of soloing on chord changes.”
This is Waldron in top flight, ably backed by one of the most underrated rhythm sections in recorded jazz in Isla Eckinger on double-bass and drummer Clarence Becton as they rumble and swing through such Waldron originals as “Rat Now” and “Rock My Soul”.
This Extended Anniversary Edition of Free At Last is the crowning jewel of a most epic 50th anniversary year for ECM, reissued as an audiophile vinyl double album that commands only Bose-quality speakers for at-home listening.
It’s a sin to think of how underrated this particular title remains over 50 years later. Waldron’s catalog as both captain and accompanist is deep enough to keep you digging in the crates in search of his titles for years and years: you might not even live long enough to hear them all, though you’re very much encouraged to do so by the editor of this publication.
But if there’s one album to start off your journey, that record must be Free At Last.