Monday, July 23, 2012

A Week of Picks (Monday)

Saxophonist Virginia Mayhew has had and continues to have a very busy career.  Since moving into the New York music scene 25 years ago, she has worked alongside a fascinating array of musicians, including Earl "Fatha" Hines, Cab Calloway, Frank Zappa, James Brown, Al Grey, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Doc Cheatam, Joe Williams, Leon Parker, Clark Terry, Kenny Barron, Chico O'Farrill,Nnenna Freelon and Ingrid Jensen.  She's worked as a Jazz Ambassador for the US Government and currently, she is the Musical Director and saxophonist of the Duke Ellington Legacy, a 9-piece group led by Ellington's grandson, Edward Kennedy Ellington III. Ms. Mayhew has been an educator including working a number of different summer jazz camps and releases CDs on her Renma label.

"Mary Lou Williams - The Next 100 Years" is a project that Ms. Mayhew developed along with pianist Tony Pancella.  2010 was the centennial year of the great pianist-composer's birth and this project features 8 of Ms.Williams compositions and 2 original blues pieces by the leader. Instead of rearranging and updating these pieces (which, save for Ms. Mayhew's tunes) span 4 decades, the saxophonist convened a small group composed of Ed Cherry (guitar), Harvie S. (acoustic bass) and Andy Watson (drums) plus special guest Wycliffe Gordon (trombone).  Pleased to say, Ms. Mayhew sounds in fine form after her mid-decade battle with breast cancer.  She swings her way through "J.B.'s Waltz", a piece Mary Lou Williams wrote for her half-brother. Judging by the spirited play of the quartet, J.B. must been quite a guy.  "Medi II" and "Medi I" (programmed in that order) are pieces that were originally recorded on the "Zoning" Lp.  The former adds the voice of Gordon's trombone and he glides smoothly over the torrid pace laid down by Harvie S and Watson.  "..I", also known as "Searching for Love" (Ms. Mayhew found the original sheet music in the Williams archive at the Rutgers Jazz Institute), is a lovely ballad;  the saxophone solo is emotionally strong and is followed by a heartfelt statement from Cherry.  "Cancer" (from "Zodiac Suite") is the centerpiece of the recording, the longest track (11:30) and really feels like 2 pieces.  The first 4+ minutes are slow with a melody for saxophone and harmony for trombone.  Watson's cymbal splashes illuminate the background like fireflies and, after his short solo, the drummer doubles the pace, pushing the rest of the players into a sprightly bop rhythm.  Ms. Mayhew and Gordon both create excellent solos, the saxophonist really digging in to the groove while the trombonist dances atop the highly active rhythm section (supported by Cherry's insistent chordal work.)

There's plenty to enjoy on this CD between the strong compositions, the fine solo work of all involved and the excellent rhythm section.  Virginia Mayhew and her friends have fun with this music, all the while giving Mary Lou Williams the respect she rightly deserves (and, hopefully, opening new eyes and ears to a great talent.)  There's a lot of blues in these grooves but they're the kind that will make listeners smile. For more information, go to

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