03/06/07

Shout: The Music of Mary Lou Williams

In her lifetime and beyond, pianist-composer-bandleader Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) confounded many jazz stereotypes, not the least of which was her creative fire as a woman working in a male-dominated scene. Her work and her significance in jazz is still being refined and revisited, in history books and in live and recorded settings. Beyond gender and style politics, though, Williams was also unique in that she converted to Catholicism and found her own path to happiness and musical expression. She was a soulful individualist, still deserving of wider recognition.

So it was no arbitrary or token gesture when Williams’ music—mostly from her 1970 jazz-cum-gospel opus “Mary Lou’s Mass”—showed up in a tribute concert in this season’s Los Angeles Master Chorale’s schedule. Fittingly, the acoustic-friendly Walt Disney Concert Hall filled with glorious sounds, from various cultural corners of the musical map, true to Williams’ multi-directional perspective. Led with typical boldness by Grant Gershon, the Master Chorale wove its sonorous sound with the Luckman Jazz Orchestra (L.A.’s fine new big band, based at Cal State Los Angeles), jazz singer Carmen Lundy, vocalist from the operatic/art song field Cedric Berry, and the internationally known, L.A.-based gospel group the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers.

In a sense, the Jubilee Singers’ portion of the evening, an entr’acte set of spirituals, provided an important link between the aspects of liturgical music, choral tradition and Williams’ jazz pedigree.

Yes, it is a Mass, with some of the expected liturgical elements intact. But the piece is also true to the designation as “Mary Lou’s Mass,” personalized in her own sweet and bluesy way. The concert opened and closed with versions of Williams’ tune “Praise the Lord,” first with Luckman director Charles Owens soloing on soprano sax over a soft rhythm section vamp, and then closing with a thick 13th chord in the chorale. Thirteenth chords appear only rarely in their line of work, but they sang it like they meant it, as was the case all night.

Lanny Hartley, the Luckman Orchestra’s pianist, arranged many of the charts for the tribute, nicely showcasing aspects of both the instrumental and vocal components of the program. A ’60s-ish, period piece “rock” feel showed up on “Kyrie Eleison (Lord, Have Mercy)” and “People in Trouble,” while “Sanctus/Benedictus” played its swarming choral sound against the lightness of a Brazilian pulse.
As the principle lead vocalist, as well as an abiding champion of Williams’ music, Lundy repeatedly impressed with her flexibility. She moved seamlessly from the gospelesque Martin Luther King-based song of peace, “I Have a Dream” to the angular, Strayhorn-like “In His Day,” a too-brief intro to the rock-meets-boogaloo take on “The Apostles’ Creed.” Berry swayed easily between jazz and art song in his blues-flavored interpretation of “Anima Christi,” based on a 14th century prayer.

No doubt, Williams would have appreciated the convergence of forces involved in this evening, from the classical, jazz and spiritual factions of music. It swung and swooned with gospel spirit and pursued an idealistic and intellectual course, while transcending easy categorization. The complex yet emotionally direct Williams aesthetic was in the house.

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