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 Wednesday, 25 November 2015
Revisiting Mary Lou Williams: Geri Allen Celebrates The Zodiac Suite PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Image“Zodiac Suite: Revisited combines traditional elements from jazz history with the kind of progressive energy that has always followed great artists. “ –Jim Santella, All About Jazz

For much of the 20th century, pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams was a pioneer among women seeking to break into the male-dominated world of jazz. Many of the leading jazzmen of the genre’s first century owed a considerable debt to Williams for compositions and arrangements that brought them far more fame and fortune, including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong. Her “Zodiac Suite,” first performed at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic, is now the subject of revival and reinterpretation thanks to pianist Geri Allen and the Mary Lou Williams Collective.

Mary Lou Williams

A formidable performer, composer, and arranger, Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) was a child prodigy who held the piano chair for such orchestras as Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians and the Andy Kirk Band; she was staff

Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
arranger for Ellington and also provided arrangements for many of the top Swing-era bandleaders, including Benny Goodman, Bob Crosby, Cab Calloway, the Dorseys, Louis Armstrong, and Earl Hines. Throughout her life, her music evolved with the times, from swing to bop and “modern” styles; she was also a source of inspiration and support to such artists as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Charlie Parker, and Kenny Dorham. Publishing and recording her own works, she penned over 350 compositions, most notably the “Zodiac Suite,” which was commemorated at the 2005 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in a performance by Geri Allen. The recipient of many honorary degrees, Williams was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, performed at the first International Women in Jazz Festival in Kansas City, and performed at the White House for President Jimmy Carter. At the time of her death, she was artist-in-residence at Duke University.

The original presentation and recording of Zodiac Suite was as a collection of twelve solo, duo and trio piano pieces named for the astrological signs of the jazz legends to whom Williams dedicated the compositions. Conceived in 1944 as a series of compositions to perform on her weekly radio show (The Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop), Williams recorded all twelve in 1945, creating what most acknowledge as her definitive work. The first recording was carried out in the studio with bassist Al Lucas and drummer Jack “The Bear” Parker on 10 sides, while Williams recorded “Cancer” and “Leo” as solos. Asch Records released the original on 78 rpm; Folkways reissued the suite in 1975. The New York Philharmonic performed portions of the suite at Carnegie Hall in 1945, the first time that a major symphony orchestra performed music of jazz composer. In December, 1945, the full suite was performed and recorded live at Town Hall by a chamber orchestra conducted by Milt Orent, who had done some of the initial scoring, and included Ben Webster.

Geri Allen

Geri Allen
Geri Allen
A product of the great jazz tradition of Detroit, Geri Allen studied jazz with Marcus Belgrave, earned a degree in jazz studies at Howard University in Washington DC (where she met husband, trumpeter Wallace Roney), and studied jazz piano in New York with the great Kenny Barron. In the 1980s she was a member of the M-Base Collective; in the early 90s she worked with Ornette Coleman. She has since released a series of acclaimed recordings as leader (including 2004’s Life of a Song with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette) while teaching at Howard University. In 1996 she became the first woman to be awarded the Jazzpar Prize in Denmark, the only international jazz award. Although their styles differ and the context of their development are obviously decades apart, Geri Allen shares some key talents with Mary Lou Williams—as a gifted composer and improviser, as a passionate role model for women in jazz, and as one who stretches the envelope while respecting tradition.

Zodiac Suite Revisited

DJ Val, photo by Andrea Canter
DJ Val, photo by Andrea Canter

As on the original Town Hall release of Zodiac Suite (reissued on CD in 1991 on Mary Records), Geri Allen and the Mary Lou Williams Collective (essentially Allen’s 2003 working trio, Buster Williams on bass and Billy Hart on drums) cover the twelve signs of the Zodiac; additionally the new recording includes Willams’ “Intermission,” a Williams’ favorite, Herbie Nichols’ The Bebop Waltz,” and Allen’s original tribute to Williams, “Thank You Madam.” Drummer Andrew Cyrille replaces Hart on the latter two compositions. The recording has the intimacy of a well-equipped living room, which in fact is the setting—on Allen’s piano at her Montclair, NJ home, recorded by Val Jeanty, a talented sound engineer and turntablist (“DJ Val”) in the Wallace Roney band.

Relative to the original release, many tracks are longer on Revisited, some significantly so, such as the first three tracks, “Aries,” “Taurus” and “Gemini.” Although faithfully studying and transcribing the original compositions, Allen was hardly a slave to them, using her own sense of harmony and construction to put her own imprint on the music. As noted by Frances Davis (The Village Voice), “those needling clusters, suspended rhythms, and dissonant harmonies are implicit in Williams's original recordings, and here they're just more pronounced.” With more time to stretch out, the trio takes more liberties, and the small ensemble format, without the polyphony of an orchestra, creates a very different feel than does the original recording. Where Mary Lou Williams recorded her palette of sound using the multiple voices of a chamber orchestra, Geri Allen uses the full range of the piano, bass and drum kit, each instrument called upon to fill multiple roles. Yet when comparing the two recordings, certain common elements remain—the use of stride and boogie woogie figures, the bluesy soulful voicings, the use of repeating phrases, the overall integration across the twelve signs of the zodiac such that it flows like a suite rather than 12 separate compositions.

“Aries” introduces the suite as a preparation for a journey across the galaxy. As she will demonstrate throughout the suite, Geri Allen can climb all over the keyboard while nevertheless maintaining a tightly woven structure that holds all together, no matter how far the wanderings. Elements of stride and lyricism connect the 21st and 20th century works, while harmonic dissonance and rhythmic alterations push the Zodiac farther along the time/space continuum. On “Taurus” (Mary Lou’s sign!) Allen creats a timpani-like shimmer from her left hand chords while Hart’s drums sound an incantation before the piano shifts to a bluesy vamp and Williams’ buzzy melodic line becomes the centerpiece.

Buster Williams

“Gemini” starts out like a child’s piano exercise, with an additional bar of phrasing is added with each repetition. This segues into a stride-based mini-symphony featuring Buster William’s great walking (if not really linear) line and Hart’s steady percussion. Another series of repeating lines and triplet phrases from piano brings it full circle. Allen here has preserved the repeating phrase structure of the original, although Williams used varying tempos to break up the repetition and scored the melody to be carried by the reeds. Revisited, Allen carries significantly the responsibility for both melody and bassline. Harp-like cascades and a deep resonating whine from the bass give “Cancer” its lyrical, surreal quality, while Hart produces some ghostly shimmers on cymbals. Where the additional instrumentation added color on the original recording, Hart fills the palette here with an array of percussive tactics. A closer fit perhaps to the original, “Leo” starts with a militaristic round on the snares and marching lines from piano before gathering forces into a more Ellingtonian, more orchestral section. Cymbals splash and wash over the lines like high tide, and Allen makes a more obtuse return to the initial theme. Dedicated to Leonard Feather, “Virgo” is wonderfully bop in its angular embellishments and swinging upbeat persona. Allen takes “Libra” as a solo, and it is a melodic showstopper that allows full attention to Allen’s gently crafted impressionistic lines that ebb and flow in cascading scales. On “Scorpio,” Buster Williams evokes an electric bass with a gurgling undertow, while Hart’s cymbals hiss and mallets rumble. Allen’s sharp edges give it a Monkish line but more somber, taking a downward tumble in staccato waves with shifting rhythms and a trilling left hand. It’s a dark, balladic “Night in Tunisia,” or perhaps somewhere else exotic, but the message is clear--proceed with caution!

The final four “signs” are piano solos. A repetitive theme, first in right and then left hand opens “Sagittarius,” awash in lyricism over a somewhat bluesy beat that recalls Keith Jarrett; it’s at once both more modern in harmonics and more classical in design than the original version. With orchestra in 1945, the melody and harmony were carried by horns and flute, Mary Lou adding only a brief keyboard bridge. A percussive “Capricorn” follows, minor and majestic, filled with heavily textured runs and chords, and at just over two minutes, the shortest segment of the suite. Mary Lou dedicated “Aquarius” to then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Allen gently delivers a potpourri of moods with a distinctly classical, almost hymnal romanticism. Mary Lou Williams wrote the final “Pisces” as a waltz; Allen creates a rhythmically complex dance that manages to be both delicate and decisive.

Andrew Cyrille (Drumworld)
Andrew Cyrille (Drumworld)

Zodiac Suite: Revisited closes with the three “bonus” tracks performed by the trio (with Cyrille replacing Hart), including Herbie Nichols’ “The BeBop Waltz” which showcases the always-marvelous Buster Williams; Mary Lou’s “Intermission” is a swinging tour de force for the trio featuring Hart’s pyrotechnics; and the finale, Allen’s tribute ballad to Mary Lou Williams composed with both this recording and the trio with Cyrille in mind. The latter offers arguably the most lushly beautiful music of the set.

Everyone has roots; the question is what to do with them. By filtering Williams’ music through a thoroughly neoteric lens, Zodiac Suite: Revisited is the perfect homage at a time where women in jazz are no longer novelties and their art is assessed on the basis of its merits, not their gender.”-- John Kelman (All About Jazz)

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