In a time when "female jazz performer is no longer an oxymoron, it's important to remember there was a time when jazz was essentially a men's club. All the more remarkable, then, that pianist Mary Lou Williams was not just an accomplished artistin a time where women jazzers were typically relegated to vocalist rolesbut a forward-thinking one with one foot in stride and the other in a rapidly evolving musical landscape. While Zodiac Suite: Revisited
is not the first tribute to Williams, it is the first to take a look at one of Williams' most enduring pieces of music, treating it with both the respect and irreverence any serious jazz work deserves.
With a revolving-door group of players, pianist Geri Allen is the only constant in the Mary Lou Williams Collective. While the bulk of Zodiac Suite: Revisited, the first of a series of planned releases, features Allen with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, future records will use other musicians to suit each project's specific demands.
Allen, a pianist with a firm understanding of the tradition but also a contemporary innovator, is the perfect choice to carry on Williams' legacy. Recent work with Charles Lloyd and husband Wallace Roney has proven just how broad her reach is. She bears the stamp of Herbie Hancock's sometimes dense abstraction, but she also understands the value of space, bringing a remarkable modernity to Williams' adventurous suite.
While Williams wrote three of the twelve pieces in 1944, the balance of the suite was written in 1945 for her WNEW radio program, The Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop. In its sparse beauty there was nothing quite like it, and the Collective succeeds at giving it a facelift without losing sight of its original intentions. "Taurus and "Gemini may combine contemporary stride, swing and blues, but Allen, Williams and Hart manage to make them sound paradoxically of their time and timeless. "Cancer is a dark ballad, with Williams' robust tone a fulcrum that supports Allen's abstruse phrasing and Hart's more textural approach.
"Leo, with Hart's military rhythm and Allen's fanfare-like pianism, alludes to the freer approach that Williams would occasionally take later in life, as does the underhanded groove of "Scorpio, where there may be form, but with a decidedly open-ended and ambiguous approach.
The already generous program is fleshed out with three additional tracks, two featuring Andrew Cyrille in Hart's place. While only "Intermission is Williams'"The Bebop Waltz is a Herbie Nichols tune and the album concludes with Allen's moody but ethereally beautiful "Thank You Madam they all demonstrate how Allen has studiously taken lessons learned from Williams and pushed them ahead with her own inside/outside approach.
Everyone has roots; the question is what to do with them. By filtering Williams' music through a thoroughly neoteric lens, Zodiac Suite: Revisited is the perfect homage at a time where women in jazz are no longer novelties and their art is assessed on the basis of its merits, not their gender.