Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Composers Updated: Mary Lou Williams and Charles Mingus

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

In 1945, Ms. Williams had a weekly radio program on WNEW-AM in New York City.  For 12 consecutive weeks, she produced a song based on one of the signs of the Zodiac.  Having read a book on astrology, her songs celebrated musicians she knew born under each of the signs. She first recorded the "Zodiac Suite" in 1945 with her trio of Al Lucas (bass) and Jack "The Bear" Parker –– she went on to arrange the piece for an 18-member big band plus arranging three sections for the New York Philharmonic and piano soloist (Ms. Williams). This is the first instance of Jazz meeting the Symphony.  Over the years, other artists such as Dave Douglas, John Hicks and Geri Allen, have recorded the "Suite" or specific pieces of it.

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.

The album closes with "Aries" with its pleasing bebop feel but notice how Pattishall chooses to move the melody forward. Hang in until the end of the piece because it is as jarring musically as it is surprising.  

"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.

Here's "Aries":

As a composer, bassist, activist, and entrepreneur, Charles Mingus had few equals.  From the late 1940s through until his death in 1979, he produced music and made proclamations that challenged, provoked, and entertained a large audience.  He performed with Lionel Hampton, and/or recorded with Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, Langston Hughes, and with Max Roach and Duke Ellington on the acclaimed 1962 Lp "Money Jungle".  He issues over 50 albums in his lifetime on labels such as Atlantic, United Artists, Columbia Records, Savoy, his own Debut Records, and others.  His music took on social causes even as it was satirical plus many of his ballads are so well written that have been recorded by many other artists.  

"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

The opening track of "I Pledge Allegiance...." is "Fables of Faubus", a work she had previously recorded in a duo setting with a bassist in 2011.  The 1957 piece is dedicated to the outrageous racist behavior of the then-Governor of Arkansas Orville Faubus who had sent out the National Guard to prevent the Court-ordered integration of the Little Rock schools.  In Ms. Nilles hands (and voice), the performance is a concerto, with excerpts of spirituals, a motif by  Shostakovich, "Yankee Doodle Dandy", and "Lift Every Voice and Song" interspersed with the pianist's solo extrapolations. Unless you have studied United States history, especially the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, the piece may not speak to you but think of the events around  election 2020 and its aftermath.  Those listeners who know should be mighty impressed by the scope of this 13-minute performance.  The music was composed at a time was also a time when the music was not separate from the Movement but a major part of it.

Through the course of the album, one hears so many creative approaches to Mingus's works. The pianist creates a meditative approach for the oft-recorded "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", taking her time, enunciating each note of the melody. The solo section has traces of Bill Evans, Erik Satie, and Myra Melford in Ms. Nilles phrasing.  The jittery piano chords at the opening of "Free Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi U.S.A." lead into a rollicking, circus-like, reading of the piece.  There are touches of cabaret, of tango, of Stephen Sondheim during this performance. The ethereal opening of "Peggy's Blue Skylight" leads to the most beautiful moments on the recording.  The pianist doesn't rush, caresses the melody lines, lets us hear all the notes, and still paints a picture that stands out.

Ms. Nilles sings on several of the tracks besides the opening "Fables..."  Her voice has hints of Blossom Dearie as if filtered through Bessie Smith, especially on "Devil Blues". Her piano on the track certainly goes deep, with splashes of Jelly Roll Morton, Memphis Slim, and James Booker. There's also deep blues on "Oh Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me" –– dig her sparse left hand, rolling chordal accompaniment to her far-flung, adventurous right hand. Even with the sarcastic title, the music never falls into parody.

The program closes with Coltrane's "Alabama" –– the song, written in response to the September 15, 1963, bombing of a church in Birmingham that left four young girls dead, has the feel of a funeral procession but not a dirge.  The composer, a father of three boys and step-father to his second wife Alice's daughter, was horrified by the event and listened closely to the eulogy delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King. Ms. Nilles treat the piece with great respect, with quiet, tolling, chords and later with rumbling chords, also adding a verse from the Irish folk tune "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair".  It's s stunning finish to a superb album.

"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:

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