Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes

Mary Lou Williams

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Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes Review

by Brandon Burke

Complex and brooding suites by jazz artists have often received mixed reviews. Whether hailed as brilliant and visionary or slammed as self-indulgent and trite -- Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige, Charles Mingus' infamous Town Hall Concert, or even Wynton Marsalis' Blood on the Fields all come to mind -- these works are, if nothing else, great risks for the artists involved. At the time of its initial performance, "Black Christ of the Andes" (or "St. Martin de Porres") was called everything from "blues stripped of its accent" to a "hokey prayer," prompting Williams to cut it from her repertoire before the release of the LP in 1964. An unfortunate fate for a very enjoyable and, now, highly regarded piece of music. Williams explained her pioneering concept of pairing jazz with spirituals as an attempt to heal the disparity between the gifted nature of the African-American and his tendency toward the worst kinds of sin. In fact, the original title for this LP was Music for Disturbed Souls. Certainly, by 1962 others had employed the modes and feel of the church into jazz, but Williams' use of the Ray Charles Singers (no relation to the other Ray Charles) added an element that made "St. Martin," an a cappella choral piece, a much more church-oriented affair than, say, John Coltrane's "Spiritual." Williams' vision, like Coltrane's, was at times dark and sobering while at others full of warmth and hope. It would have been completely out of place, however, at the Village Vanguard. This is a piece that belongs, if not in the church, then certainly out of the nightclub circuit. Other tracks on this LP, though, like her sublime rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So," would have been welcome in their dark and smoky confines. Otherwise, expect a jump blues number, a handful of trio cuts (some featuring Percy Heath), and a smattering of various vocal combinations throughout. A number of styles are represented here and they weave amongst one another with ease and grace. This is a very enjoyable record with some especially rewarding piano solos by Williams.

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