Of the more than 170 titles in the Mal Waldron discography, roughly half of which were released under his own name, The Quest ranks among the crème de la crème. Recorded on June 27, 1961, the session features seven great Waldron compositions played by an all-star sextet: with the leader on piano; Eric Dolphy, alto sax and clarinet; Booker Ervin, tenor sax; Ron Carter, cello; Joe Benjamin, bass; and Charles Persip, drums. By 1961, the challenges to bop thrown down by the likes of Mingus and Coltrane were speeding through Ornette Coleman’s “free jazz” door into the great plain of the future. The Quest is one of the early masterworks of the new jazz.
Saxophone banshees Dolphy and Ervin (like Waldron himself) were Mingus alumni, though their styles were quite different. Let’s just say that trying to whistle along with Dolphy’s solo on the lead track, “Status Seeking,” will leave you dizzy and hyperventilating — while Ervin’s contribution (a kind of leaning into his notes with a drawn-out holler), while more hum-along-able, is no less explosive. Even at up-tempo, Waldron makes a lot happen with very few notes — minimal chords and one-or-two-finger phrasing.
Track two, “Duquility,” is a brief, quiet homage to Duke Ellington refracted through Waldron’s admiration for Erik Satie. He shows the kind of keyboard sensitivity here that must’ve enchanted Lady Day.
“Thirteen,” a thoroughly nonacademic use of Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositional method, is loping and mysterious, with compact, passionate solos from Dolphy, Carter (bowed), Ervin and Waldron. Not glib or flashy, the leader steers his phrases through Monk-like noodling into a pianistic trance. Then the band gets in and out of the theme of “We Diddit” before you know it — the title verbalizes the tune’s quick, repeated 16th notes — and Persip offers up one of his totally musical drum solos.
The ballad that follows, “Warm Canto,” is the set’s pièce de résistance. Its lyrical and dramatic melody, a movielike theme, leads right into Dolphy’s emotionally profound clarinet solo. Carter follows with a hesitant, lovely, plucked morsel. And Waldron closes things out with one of the most elegantly relaxed solos he ever recorded. “Warm Canto” is like a great cup of tea.
The two closers, “Warp and Woof” and “Fire Waltz,” avoid 4/4 time in favor of 5/4 and 3/4 respectively; after all of this disc’s layered beauty, it’s a pleasure to hear the soloists stretch out. “Fire Waltz” in particular — one of Waldron’s lasting contributions to the jazz-standard repertoire — would soon spark Dolphy’s earthshaking Live at the Five Spot, Vols. 1 and 2, where Dolphy, Waldron and meteoric trumpeter Booker Little tore the roof off bebop.