Throughout a 55-year career that started in the 1920s, Mary Lou Williams always sounded modern…
Throughout a 55-year career that started in the 1920s, Mary Lou Williams always sounded modern in her playing and writing, evolving with the times without losing her musical personality. She first recorded one of her most intriguing works, the 12-part Zodiac Suite, on June 29, 1945, as a piano soloist and with her trio. On Dec. 31, 1945 she gave a live performance — which, fortunately, was recorded — in which she utilized her trio, eight horns and strings. The only other time that Williams revisited the music was at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, where she performed three of the movements. Few other jazz artists have explored the work and, even then, only selective parts.
Pianist Chris Pattishall’s Zodiac, his debut album as a leader, marks the first time that the entire suite has been recorded since 1945. He utilizes trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, saxophonist Ruben Fox, bassist Marty Jaffe, drummer Jamison Ross, and some sound design by Rafiq Bhatia. Williams’ work is quite episodic, with two or three moods sometimes explored in an individual piece. Pattishall’s arrangements retain the mood shifts along with the themes while utilizing a wider range of sounds and tone colors. However, there was no need to modernize anything since Williams’ work still sounds futuristic.
“Taurus” features trumpeter Mulherkar creating a solo that is a bit “outside.” The dark “Gemini” makes use of space. “Cancer,” a mysterious-sounding ballad, includes spots for both horns, hinting at Charles Mingus’ music. “Leo” contains complex chords and military-sounding drum breaks; “Virgo” is playful and swinging; “Libra” is a thoughtful piano solo that does not really resolve anything; and “Scorpio,” which uses chord voicings worthy of Duke Ellington, is made more exotic via Fox’s tenor solo. “Sagittarius” is taken mostly out-of-tempo and sounds somewhat classical; the somber “Capricorn” comprises a series of particularly adventurous chords; “Aquarius” is relatively carefree; “Pisces” is an unpredictable waltz; and the happily scattered “Aries” concludes the work.
Williams’ Zodiac Suite is unlike any other music and Pattishall, in his playing and writing, certainly does it justice. —Scott Yanow