Virginia Mayhew Quartet – Mary Lou Williams, The Next 100 Years – Renma Recordings 6402CD, 63:56 ****½:
(Virginia Mayhew, tenor sax; Ed Cherry, guitar; Harvie S, bass; Andy Watson, drums. With Special guest, Wycliffe Gordon, trombone)
Mary Lou Williams’ place in jazz history is without question. From the 1930s up until the late 1970s, Williams largely covered the most fertile period of jazz. At the time of the beginning of her career, the place of women in the then male-dominated jazz world, did not exceed the “girl” singer in jazz bands. Ms. Williams’ career far exceeded any designation. From the early 30s when she joined the Kansas City band Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, Mary Lou’s career soon blossomed beyond that of any other female jazz musician. She became a major composer, arranger, and pianist.
Her compositions and arrangements were featured in the bands of Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. Some of her most famous compositions include Zodiac Suite, Black Christ of Andes, and Mary Lou’s Mass (which was commissioned by the Vatican in 1969.) She was at the foreground of many changes in jazz repertoire including bebop, and even recorded a two piano album with Cecil Taylor, the avant-garde pianist. Her Harlem apartment became the hanging ground of Bud Powell, Monk, Bird, and Dizzy.
As you can see, the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2010 (she passed away in 1981), was a time to honor this unique renaissance woman. Recorded at the end of 2010 but just recently released, tenor saxophonist Virginia Mayhew, with her quartet and guest soloist, Wycliffe Gordon, honor Williams with a mixture of some of Virginia’s better, and less known compositions as well as two originals, “One for Mary Lou,” and “5 for Mary Lou.”
Mayhew went through over 200 tracks of Williams’ material before settling on the eight tunes featured on this CD. She decided to bring in Ed Cherry on guitar due to his blues talents, and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon as she wanted to feature a second horn on some of the numbers. Mayhew has succeeded magnificently in sharing Williams’ talents with strong swing based and blues influences.
“J.B.’s Waltz” opens the CD with a 24-bar blues. Mayhew’s bluesy runs are infectious, and Ed Cherry solos with a confident authority. Drummer Watson lays out a relaxed groove. “Medi I” and “Medi II” follow from Williams’ Zoning recording. Wycliffe Gordon, who plays on five of the ten tracks, has a great gut-bucket-type solo on “Medi II.” “Medi I” is quite soulful with a mallet work on the cymbals, and a passionate mournful solo by Virginia.
“O.W.” from the 1950s, features Harvie S on bass solo, which is very nicely recorded and has an in the room presence. “Cancer” from the Zodiac Suite begins in a contemplative vibe before leading to a more up-tempo blowing session between Gordon and Mayhew. It’s the longest number on the CD at 11:30, providing the mixing of moods. “What’s Your Story Morning Glory,” is the most well-known Williams’ composition here. It goes back to 1938. It was recorded as “Black Coffee” by numerous vocalists ranging from Maria Muldaur, Bobby Darin, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. Gordon’s plunger trombone, and Ed Cherry are featured. Few living ‘bone players match Gordon’s plunger mastery.
“Waltz Boogie” mixes Mary Lou’s talent merging boogie-woogie and blues. Cherry and Harvie S blend well, while Mayhew blows boppish lines. Closing out the CD are the two original Mayhew tracks honoring Mary Lou. “One for Mary Lou” is a more up-tempo minor blues given a modern reading as the tenor and trombone take lead spurred on by Andy Watson. “5 for Mary Lou” is a funky ending for a superlative tribute to a jazz pioneer, Mary Lou Williams. I highly recommend this superb CD!
TrackList: J.B.’s Waltz, Medi II, Medi I, O. W., Cancer, What’s Your Story Morning Glory, N.M.E., Waltz Boogie, One for Mary Lou, 5 for Mary Lou
This is a delightful holiday collection.