Mary Lou Williams

1944-1945

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One thing about chronologically arranged reissues -- you never know exactly what you're going to bump into. The third volume of the complete recordings of Mary Lou Williams, for example, opens with a pair of tunes sung by Josh White. It's good to hear the lyrics to Williams' cool, bluesy "Froggy Bottom," but "The Minute Man" is one of those obligatory, rhetorical patriotic numbers that cropped up everywhere during WWII and are relevant today only as historical curiosities. Most of the music reissued in this compilation originally appeared on scratchy 78-rpm records bearing the Asch label. Tenor sax archetype Coleman Hawkins is featured on the lush "Song in My Soul" and trumpeter Bill Coleman presides over a laid-back strolling blues with the worrisome title "Carcinoma." Clarinetist Claude Greene composed "This and That," a lively, bop-like romp that sounds a bit like "Epistrophy." As for "Oh, Lady Be Good," this septet's brisk and inventive set of variations based upon those Gershwin chord progressions would soon be rechristened "Rifftide" by Hawkins, who had a way of gobbling up harmonic advancements in jazz as soon as they appeared on the scene during the 1940s. With drummer Denzil Best driving the band, this is an exciting example of jazz in transition and should be studied by all who seek to better understand how the music evolved as quickly as it did in 1944. Speaking of modernity, in 1945 Mary Lou Williams composed and recorded "The Zodiac Suite," an astrologically inspired cycle of sketches for piano, bass, and drums. Each movement was dedicated to a specific set of musicians, including Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Ellis Larkins, and Leonard Feather. There also exists a three-piano arrangement of the "Scorpio" movement that the composer had intended to perform with Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. The music is at times wonderfully abstract and ethereal, regularly returning to the root system of blues and boogie as if to nourish itself with the lifeblood of tradition even as the composer pursued a course of harmonic exploration in ways that variously recall Ellington, Strayhorn, Satie, and Debussy. Incredibly, some critics and historians, like bored toddlers, have complained of a "lack of variety" in this work. This sort of ungracious mentality has also engendered shortsighted criticism of James P. Johnson's "Yamekraw." Williams expressed herself beautifully here, and listeners are advised to relax and proceed with patience and an open mind. This interesting album of rare treats closes with two piano solos that are cousins of "The Zodiac Suite," entitled "Stars" and "Moon," and "Timmie Time," a wonderful swinging bop study performed by an all-female quintet. In addition to Mary Lou Williams at the piano the ensemble was composed of guitarist Mary Osborne, vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams, upright bassist Bea Taylor, and smart shuffle drummer Bridget O'Flynn.

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