She was "the little girl who swings the band, an arranger for Andy Kirk, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and practically any other sublime big band name you could deign to think of. Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell hung out at her NYC apartment to soak up her knowledge during the bop era. Mary Lou Williams should be a household name, or at least a dorm room name. Something.
One who carries her torch to enlighten bedraggled minds is Geri Allen, a Detroit-born pianist, sharp-toned and keen on melody. She leads the Mary Lou Williams Collective on Zodiac Suite: Revisited
. Williams composed pieces for each astrological sign, as tributes to adored artists who were born under each one. Begun in 1944, she composed most of them to perform on her weekly radio show (The Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop
) in 1945. She recorded all twelve the same year, and the collection became her definitive work, modulated and sweated over the rest of her intermittent career.
Geri Allen puts together a stellar trio for this re-visioning of the Zodiac Suite, along with a few other Williams-inspired tracks. Buster Williams is an anchor on bass, hypnotically steady, having worked with Williams occasionally in the '60s and '70s. Billy Hart maintains a meticulously busy touch on the drums during the Zodiac Suite, while Andrew Cyrille takes over for the impressive set of odds and ends afterward.
The suite kicks off with "Aries, a Lady Day and Ben Webster tribute, which slips in a sinuously bright melody among the numerous breaks that Allen handles with brisk aplomb. The ominous "Taurus is dominated by Allen's funereal left-hand line, which is then attacked by the insistent bluesy riff from her right. Buster Williams joins in with a ferocious bass break, and it settles and roils from there. It's a command performance, apt in that it's the sign of Duke as well as lady Mary. My favorite piece is the slow-burning "Capricorn, undergirded by a simple walking bass that is expanded into jackhammer piano runs, before screeching to a halt for some dreamy lyricism. The bass, that most patient of instruments, always brings it back on home though, which in this case is an irresistable syncopated groove.
The final four signs are pieces originally improvised on the radio show, executed by Allen here with lithe grace. All are gems of articulated drama, rising and falling like any good Hollywood weepie. These heart-tugs are well earned though: crisp, clear and achingly honest. "Aquarius is the loveliest of them all, beguiling with its innocent charm and music box melody. It's dedicated to FDR, but its beauty is available to all, including this writer, now unquestionably proud to be a noble Aquarius himself.
Personnel: Geri Allen: piano; Buster Williams: bass; Andrew Cyrille: drums (13, 15); Billy Hart: drums (all other tracks).