Mary Lou Williams: Mary Lou's Mass, My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me, Zodiac Suite Revisited, The Lady Who Swings the Band


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Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou's Mass
Smithsonian Folkways

Mary Lou Williams
My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me

Mary Lou Williams Collective
Zodiac Suite Revisited
Mary Records

Dutch Jazz Orchestra
The Lady Who Swings the Band

Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)—pianist, composer, arranger and teacher—was not only the First Lady of jazz; she has a place at the very top echelon of the jazz pantheon. Among her few peers in the over half- century she was active were Duke Ellington, Benny Carter and Sonny Blount aka Sun Ra, all musicians, composers and arrangers who successfully remained contemporary through vast stylistic shifts in the history of jazz, from before swing until well after bebop. Indeed Ellington captured her well, calling her "perpetually contemporary . Williams came to prominence in the late '20s and '30s as the principal composer-arranger and pianist for Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, enhancing her reputation by contributing to the big band books of Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey and, later, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. She became an early champion of bebop, adapting its modern harmonies and rhythms to her blues and boogie rooted piano style. In the '50s she had a spiritual crisis that led her to abandon music for about three years; she became a Roman Catholic. From that point she devoted most of her career to spiritual music, much of it (unlike Ellington's ecumenical "Sacred Concerts , which would not sound out-of-place in today's feel-good mega-churches) written for the specific, Eucharistic liturgy of the Catholic mass.

Mary Lou's Mass brings together the music she originally recorded as the LP Music for Peace with additional recordings that together became the music for Alvin Ailey's full-length ballet, Mary Lou's Mass, plus some additional material, including two choral pieces she wrote for Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination, recorded at the Vatican. Most of the music is recorded by a Williams-led trio with voices, plus a flute and/or guitar. Although she herself didn't consider all of this music jazz, you can hear how she incorporates jazz harmonies, rhythms (including Afro-Cuban) and phrasing into her spiritual approach. And her "Our Father , soulfully sung by Carline Ray, is one of the most striking settings of "The Lord's Prayer in all of music.

My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me is Williams' salute to the blues, recorded late in her career (1977). It is a piano tour-de-force, Williams alone or joined by bassist Buster Williams and, on two tracks, singer Cynthia Tyson. That same year Williams recorded a duo concert with pianist Cecil Taylor in New York. Having been at that concert, this reviewer wishes Taylor had deigned actually to embrace (the resultant album, ironically, was titled Embraced) Williams in a blues dialogue instead of playing as if she wasn't even on stage, for Williams proves on this wonderful, career embracing outing that she commanded the totality of jazz piano techniques in her blues approach.

"The Zodiac Suite , dating from the mid '40s, was Williams' first extended work, unique for not being anchored in blues or liturgy. Zodiac Suite: Revisited is Geri Allen's wondrous interpretation of that piece, fully respectful of the unique forms and contours of Williams' composition while also expansively creative in her interpretation. Pianist Allen, with and without bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart (Andrew Cyrille replaces him on two non-Zodiac pieces), uses Williams' original recordings (which she transcribed) as a blueprint for her expanded renditions. And in Williams' often startlingly original pieces, Allen has found a frame for her own always original jazz piano conception, one that avoids all the usual ploys and tropes of 'standard' jazz piano. The result is one of the most original jazz piano-led recordings of the new millennium.

Williams did big band and even symphonic arrangements of some parts of "The Zodiac Suite and one of them, "Scorpio , premieres on The Lady Who Swings the Band, a CD that includes eight other premieres and five classic Williams' charts from the Swing Era. Although written in 1946, "Scorpio sounds more like a much later Ellington band piece (Williams wrote it for the Duke). Most of the newly premiered arrangements date from the '60s and '70s and, especially in contrast with the Swing Era pieces, reveal how much Williams remained, again recalling Duke's words, "perpetually contemporary . The recordings are all inspiringly done, with fine solos, especially from wah-wah brass and gossamer clarinets. The Dutch Jazz Orchestra, by the way, is one of the world's finest big bands, specializing in lost or neglected works of big band arrangers.

Tracks and Personnel

Mary Lou's Mass

Tracks: Willis; O.W.; Praise the Lord; Old Time Spiritual; The Lord Says; Act of Contrition; Kyrie Eleison (Lord, Have Mercy); Gloria; Medi I and Medi II; In His Day / Peace I Leave With You / Alleluia; Lazarus; Credo; Credo (Instrumental); Holy, Holy, Holy; Amen; Our Father; Lamb of God; It is Always Spring; People in Trouble; One; Praise the Lord (Come Holy Spirit); Jesus is the Best; Tell Him Not to Talk Too Long; I Have a Dream.


My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me

Tracks: The Blues; N.g. Blues; Dirge Blues; Baby Bear Boogie; Turtle Speed Boogie; Blues For Peter; My Mama Pinned A Rose On Me; Prelude To Prism; Prism; What's Your Story, Morning Glory?; Prelude To Love Roots; Love Roots; Rhythmic Pattern; J.b.'s Waltz; The Blues; No Title Blues; Syl-o-gism.

Personnel: Mary Lou Williams: piano; Buster Williams: bass; Cynthia Tyson: vocals.

Zodiac Suite Revisited

Tracks: Zodiac Suites (Aries-Pisces); Bebop Waltz

Personnel: Geri Allen: piano; Andrew Cyrille: drums; Billy Hart: drums; Buster Williams: bass.

The Lady Who Swings the Band

Tracks: Chief; Aries Mood; Medi II; Scorpio; O.W.; Scratchin' in the Gravel; Shafi; What's Your Story Morning Glory?; New Musical Express; You Know Baby; Lonely Moments; Ghost of Love; Swingin'.

Personnel: Dutch Jazz Orchestra

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