Mal Waldron‘s first tribute to Billie Holiday, titled Left Alone, was recorded in 1959, mere months before the singer’s death. He and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp came together in 2002 to salute the legendary vocalist with the CD Left Alone Revisited which is likely to be his final tribute to Holiday.
Waldron, who died within a year of making these sessions, was Holiday’s last pianist, and he treats Shepp’s expressive, vocally-inflected sax as if he were the singer reincarnated. For a famously muscular and rugged, percussively chordal pianist, Waldron is often restrained and gentle here, and his nudges and prods spark fresh melody from Shepp – like the saxophonist’s streaming, gruffly playful lyricism on “Nice Work If You Can Get It” or his smokily raunchy wailing with horn and voice on his own “Blues for 52nd Street”.
But Shepp’s fragile, choked-voice high register playing on the ballads is a haunting centrepiece to the set. An undemonstratively unique – and now unrepeatable – jazz collaboration.
Waldron is intimately familiar with her takes of the six standards heard on this disc, along with her own “Lady Sings the Blues.” They also pack a punch with their stark performance of “Left Alone” (Shepp’s occasional reed squeaks seem deliberate, as if to imitate breaks in her voice). Shepp switches to soprano sax for an emotional take of “Everything Happens to Me” and “I Only Have Eyes for You”.
This instrumental salute to Billie Holiday is one of the best albums ever to honor her memory.