Pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981), born in Georgia and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, came of age in the flowering time of Black Music and the development of Jazz. The child prodigy began playing at the age of four and, by the time she was 10, Ms. Williams was playing private parties for wealthy White clientele. In the 1930s (and beyond), her arrangements for artists such as And Kirk and the Clouds of Joy, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Lunceford, Cab Calloway, and many others thrust her into the spotlight. She moved to New York City at the onset of World War II and began a steady gig at the Cafe Society Downtown in 1943. She mentored artists such as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Tadd Dameron. She went on to perform her own music, popular as well as sacred music, until her passing in 1981. To find out more, go to ratical.org/MaryLouWilliams/MLWbio.html.
Tuesday, March 9, 2021
Composers Updated: Mary Lou Williams and Charles Mingus
For his debut album, pianist and arranger Chris Pattishall has taken the 12 Williams compositions, arranged them for quintet, and with the help of producer and sound designer Rafiq Bhatia, created "Zodiac" (Self-released). Joining the pianist is Riley Mulherkar (trumpet), Ruben Fox (tenor and soprano saxophone), Marty Jaffe (acoustic bass), and Jamison Ross (drums, percussion). If you listen to Ms. Williams recording, you'll hear that many of these pieces are multi-sectioned, often stopping for a few seconds of silence before moving forward in a different direction, sometimes coming back to the original melody. Pattishall's arrangements use that approach plus he creates space for the trumpet and sax. On the opening "Taurus", the pianist quietly introduces the piece with tolling piano chords before Murherkar and Fox take the melody forward ever-so-slowly. The mood changes as the entire band plays the melody up to to the amplified trumpet solo. In the pianist's bio, one discovers Pattishall's love of Surrealism and, with the help fo Bhatia, several of the pieces use modified sounds to tell its stories.
There is a lot of fascinating music on this album. "Scorpio" has such an arresting Latin-esque rhythm that stops at the end of the first verse for an odd bit of electronica. When the piece returns, there's a new boppish rhythm for a fun tenor sax solo. The stops-and-starts introduce new approaches to the song and each one is delightful. A martial drumbeat introduces "Leo", the melody sounds like a fanfare while the rhythm section tries to break the piece open. "Aquarius" has such a fun melody played by the trumpet with piano counterpoint. Fox's soprano sax adds a lighter voice to the mix plus play attention to how Ross and Jaffe play so much melody.
"Zodiac" is an impressive debut. Chris Pattishall and his cohorts take this music of Mary Lou Williams, music composed and recorded over three-quarters of a century ago. The quintet plus producer Rafiq Bhatia make the music and the ideas contained within come alive. If this project makes listeners go back and discover Ms.Williams vast array of recordings and arrangements, that's great. The album also heralds the emergence of a fine young talent!
For more information and to purchase the album, go to chrispattishall.bandcamp.com/album/zodiac.
"I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag––the White Flag" (Sunnyside Records) is an album of solo piano readings of 10 Charles Minus songs plus one by John Coltrane. It's the first time I have heard Stephanie Nilles, a native of Illinois who has issued six other albums since 2008, mostly on her own label. In December of 2019, Ms. Nilles traveled to Bremen, Germany, to record at the same studio where Mingus made his final recording with Eric Dolphy before the latter musician died. The music is as much of an indictment of its time as it is of today, recorded in the months after the murders of Breonna Taylor and Quawan Charles. The album takes its title from comments Mingus made as he was evicted from a New York City loft – check it out by going to www.openculture.com/2012/08/charles_mingus_evicted_in_1966_film.html.
"I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag––the White Flag" deserves –– no, demands –– to be listened to in one marathon "sitting". Stephanie Nilles reminds us of the power inherent in the music of Charles Mingus, of the anger transposed into music, of the years fighting oppression, of damning critical response yet surviving with one's hope intact. Go, find this album, and best you let it "get hit in your soul."
To find out more about the pianist, go to www.stephanienilles.com/.
Click on the link below to hear one of the great Mingus tunes: