Album of the Week: Aaron Diehl & The Knights, ‘Zodiac Suite’ (Mack Avenue)

Aaron Diehl pays tribute to Mary Lou Williams in his interpretation of one of her landmark yet overlooked works, Zodiac Suite, in a stellar collaboration with The Knights and special guests.

Aaron Diehl, one of the foremost jazz pianists of his generation, pays a heartfelt homage to the iconic Mary Lou Williams through the first complete largescale recording of one of her landmark works on his fourth full-length release on Mack Avenue Records. Zodiac Suite, composed by Williams between 1942 and 1954, is celebrated as an important early fusion of classical music and jazz, and each of its movements draws inspiration from a distinct astrological sign and bears a dedication to musicians Williams knew. Despite its significance, Williams herself struggled to record and interpret Zodiac suite in all its glory during her lifetime, and it remained one of jazz history’s best-kept secrets.

Diehl’s musical journey commenced early, beginning classical piano studies at age seven and discovering his passion for jazz during his formative years at the Interlochen Arts Camp. By 17, he had already gained recognition as a finalist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition, leading to an invitation from Wynton Marsalis for a European tour immediately after high school. Throughout his career, Diehl collaborated with jazz luminaries like Wycliffe Gordon, Benny Golson, and Hank Jones. In 2003, his personal connection to Mary Lou Williams’ legacy formed when he met Father Peter O’Brien, Williams’ manager and later the Executive Director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation. O’Brien’s unwavering dedication ignited a sense of responsibility in Diehl, compelling him to raise awareness of Williams’ enduring impact.

Collaborating with the orchestral collective The Knights and featuring special guests Evan Christopher on clarinet, Nicole Glover on tenor saxophone, Brandon Lee on trumpet, and soprano Mikaela Bennett, Diehl revitalizes this often-overlooked masterpiece, harmonizing his visionary pursuits with the brilliant creativity of Mary Lou Williams. As the Zodiac Suite unfolds, it unveils its intricate and poetic essence, seamlessly weaving together orchestral motifs and jazz elements, resulting in a powerful tour-de-force teeming with inspiration and innovation. The suite guides listeners through a diverse range of emotions and atmospheres, offering a dynamic fusion of styles, from the spirited boogie-woogie of “Gemini” to the operatic grandeur of “Pisces.”

Click here to find out more about Zodiac Suite in our JAZZIZ Podcast conversation with Aaron Diehl. Zodiac Suite is out now on Mack Avenue Records. Order it here.

Featured photo by Evelyn Freja.

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