Mary Lou Williams
A Grand Night for Swinging
Pianist Mary Lou Williams is one of those geniuses who gets overlooked because she’s simply too hard to classify. A hard swinging composer-arranger in Kansas City big bands, she was a strong influence on bebop, and late in life, when this CD was recorded, she sometimes explored modal and free jazz. This wonderful CD showcases Williams in her all-embracing splendor with a trio including bassist Ronnie Boykins (yes, avant-gardist Sun Ra’s longtime bassist) and drummer Roy Haynes.
Williams displayed a composer’s melodic gift when she soloed, and her light but firm touch in the left hand punched out chords that drove the music forward. The first of two versions of the title track and “Bag’s Blues” are especially strong on her considerable riffing abilities and feel for the blues, along with her penchant to uncorking long, bop-inflected lines to mix things up. The Spanish tinge emerges on Latin-flavored versions of “My Funny Valentine” and “St. Louis Blues.” And while her solos can be sleek and direct as an arrow in flight, on “I Can’t Get Started,” she takes her time embellishing the melody, lingering over her baroque filigrees and interleafing contrasting ideas that come at the tune from different angles.
John Stubblefield’s “Baby Man” expands the trio’s reach into modal and free jazz territory, but Williams never abandons her lyricism or roots, even as the group throws over conventional jazz form. Boykins and Haynes are with her all the way, relishing the deep grooves and Williams’ unquenchable vitality. This winter 1976 date at a club in Buffalo was a grand night indeed.
- Ed Hazell