Mary Lou Williams — At Rick’s Café Americain — Storyville 1038420 2:20:12 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
(Mary Lou Williams – Piano; Milton Suggs —Bass; Drashear Khalid — Drums)
While the history of jazz contains no small number of masters not given their full due, perhaps none are as cheated of their legacy as Mary Lou Williams. In an art form still so dominated by the myth of the male genius, the omission of Williams—a prolific composer and arranger for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, a trusted artistic adviser and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, as well as composer of a Catholic jazz mass—from the foundational accounts of jazz becomes particularly glaring. Her ability to adapt well to the stylistic leaps she lived through and pioneered, from ragtime and stride to soul jazz and avant-funk, partly contributes to her body of work getting overlooked. Unlike her good friend Monk, who insisted on performing his singular genius doggedly as critics and fans slowly caught up, Williams never lingered over-long in any era and even gave up music in favor of Catholicism for a spell.
At Rick’s Café American offers one of the last recordings of Mary Lou Williams playing live in Chicago in March 1979, just a few years before her passing in 1981. The two-disc album shares several sets all from the same night, so we hear her playing evolve over the course of the night and hear her set closer “A Grand Night For Swinging” interpreted three times over the course of the album.
Williams begins with five short compositions of her own played solo— “Spirituals 2 & 3” showcasing a gospel approach equally inflected with stern Catholicism and beaming religiosity; segueing from there to the tavern ragtime of “Fandangle” and the aptly named churchy “Old Fashioned Slow Blues;” ending with two Midwestern swing tunes “Night Life” and “Baby Bear Bogie/Roll.” All told, Williams plays just under ten minutes unaccompanied and the rest features her playing trio with no more of her own compositions.
The crowd, appreciative throughout, really starts to get into it once she embarks on her interpretations of the standards. In Williams’ hands, each song gets treated like an old friend and the recording captures the audience’s joy of recognition each time the next familiar tune reveals itself. Williams doesn’t strive to recreate standards like “‘Round Midnight,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “My Funny Valentine” with unfamiliar arrangements, instead presents them with the familiarity that can only come from someone who very well might have workshopped “ ‘Round Midnight” with Monk himself and whose years as a composer predate many of the tunes.
“Caravan” particularly stands out, giving it an uptempo intro reminiscent of a Jazz Messengers arrangement, but, of course, Art Blakey got an early start in an ensemble formed by Williams. “St. James Infirmary” is also a treat, with her showy flourishes making clear that, while she knows the debt owed New Orleans within the Jazz idiom, she herself came up through the Midwest to New York Northern blues.
The rhythm section of Milton Suggs and Drashear Khalid compliments her orchestral fullness by locking solidly into a minimalist groove. Khalid’s drums are tuned tightly and give off terse reports in time to a workman swing; Suggs adds his bounce judiciously and only stretches on his solos.
When Williams ends with her third time through “A Grand Night For Swinging,” the material is no closer to stale than the first two times the trio plays it. The tune well provides a theme for the night, as her goal is clearly to swing grandly and let all else be damned. And who else better to school you on precisely what that means?
Disc 1: Spirituals 2 & 3; Fandangle; Old Fashioned Slow Blues; Night Life; Baby Bear Bogie/Roll ‘Em; Gloria; Autumn Leaves; I Can’t Get Started; They Can’t Take That Away From Me; Satin Doll; The Jeep Is Jumping; A Grand Night For Swinging; Blues For Timme; St. James Infirmary.
Disc 2: Surrey With The Fringe On Top; The Man I Love; My Funny Valentine; Oh! Lady Be Good; Mack The Knife; ‘Round Midnight; Caravan; A Grand Night For Swinging; Love For Sale; What’s Your Story Morning Glory; Without A Song;Over The Rainbow; A Grand Night For Swinging.
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