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Mary Lou Williams -The Next 100 Years-- Virginia Mayhew Quartet

Perhaps the best known, and certainly one of the most perceptive quotes about Mary Lou Williams came from Duke Ellington: "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her music retains a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like Soul on Soul." In fact, Soul on Soul became the title of trumpeter Dave Douglas' 2000 tribute CD to Williams, as well as Tammy L. Kernodle's 2004 biography of her. Saxophonist and arranger Virginia Mayhew chose to call her incisive look at Williams' music The Next 100 Years, given that the recording session took place in 2010, the year Mary Lou would have celebrated her 100th birthday. The outstanding performances and arrangements on the CD if anything prove that Williams' work will remain modern and full of both heart and soul well past the next 100 years. Mayhew's group interprets eight of Williams' compositions (two of which were last recorded by Mary Lou prior to her death in 1981), and two Mayhew originals inspired by Williams' tunes. Heard along with Mayhew's tenor are guitarist Ed Cherry, bassist Harvie S, drummer Andy Watson, and the well-chosen guest artist Wycliffe Gordon, whose trombone enhances five tracks. Mayhew is as successful with this project as she has been leading the exceptional Duke Ellington Legacy band.

"J.B.'s Waltz" is a jovial blues in 3/4 time, not recorded by anyone since Mary Lou in 1977. Mayhew plays the theme with the pleasant backing of Cherry, who takes on the role of a comping pianist through much of the CD. The leader's earthy, piercing tone contrasts effectively with the guitarist's subtly ringing sound. Both players solo convincingly, as does Watson. "Medi I" and Medi II" were written for Williams' 1973 Zoning album, and this is the first time "Medi I" has been recorded since then. Mary Lou played "Medi I" as a groove meditation, but Mayhew discovered both the lyrics and melody at the Rutgers Jazz Institute. Although the lyrics are not utilized here, Mayhew says that "being aware of the lyrics helped our interpretation." Harvey S's profound bass, Watson's cymbals, and Cherry's delicately strummed guitar set a haunting mood as Mayhew intones the reflective melody over this hypnotic backdrop, sounding much like John Coltrane. Cherry's luminous solo evokes both Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. Overall, this is a priceless gem. Mayhew wrote an energetic theme for the previously groove-only minor blues "Medi II," basing it on some of Williams' solos. Gordon joins Mayhew for that melody, and solos with his usual personal sound and conception, exhibiting great technical facility. Mayhew wends her way nimbly through a spirited improv, and Watson explores the theme craftily in his solo. Harvie S's rhythmic vamps and propulsive bass lines add urgency to Mayhew's polished arrangement.

"O.W." is a bop-influenced seductive tune that Williams wrote in 1953 with saxophonist Orlando Wright, and which she recorded with Don Byas. Harvie S solo with soulful force and feeling, succeeded by Mayhew with a little Byas laced into her robust delivery and winding phraseology. Cherry's solo mixes rich chords with slippery single-note lines. Mayhew then throws staccato jabs at Watson, who responds with agile power. "Cancer" is a movement from Mary Lou's Zodiac Suite, which was first recorded live in 1945 featuring Ben Webster. A dark, ruminative rubato opening, with Mayhew, Gordon, and Harvie S playing many of the passages in unison, leads to Watson's intriguing interlude emphasizing mallets and brushes. An uptempo, rhythmic reprise ensues, changing the flavor of the piece entirely from that point on. Mayhew's extended solo is notable for its creative vitality and fresh phrasing. Gordon matches her with a long exploration that is unyielding in spirit and highly communicative. This is yet another superb Mayhew arrangement.

Also later known as "Black Coffee," "What's Your Story, Morning Glory?" was first recorded by The Andy Kirk Orchestra in 1938 with Williams at the piano. Mayhew's tenor sings the memorable theme with bluesy depth of feeling prior to Gordon's own plunger exposition and his guttural, speech-like solo. Mayhew returns with an eloquent statement, and Cherry offers some down home commentary of his own. The distinctive harmonies of tenor, trombone, and guitar, and the loping rhythm generated by bass and drums make for a heady aural feast. "N.M.E." (or "New Musical Express") is another boppish Williams tune from 1953, which she also recorded that year with Byas. Mayhew, Gordon, and Harvie S essay the intricate theme, after which the bassist's solo confirms his stature as a musician of extraordinary skill and magnetism. Watson also impresses with his engaged dexterity, this time focusing on brushes. The modern sounding "Waltz Boogie" has a boogie woogie undercurrent as delineated by Harvie S, as he and Watson move infectiously in 3/4 time. The concisely appealing solos from Cherry, Mayhew, and the bassist leave us wanting for more.

The CD concludes enjoyably with the two Mayhew compositions. Mayhew claims that "One for Mary Lou" was "probably inspired by 'Medi II'." The up tempo theme combines an insistent riff with a convoluted, swirling segment. Mayhew assuredly expands upon the melodic and harmonic content in her improvisation, while Gordon astonishes with an infinite variety of tonal inflections all in service to his logically developed solo. Watson's drum workout sustains the high level of imaginative musicianship. According to Mayhew, "5 for Mary Lou" was "an outgrowth of 'Waltz Boogie' and [the blues] 'Rosa Mae'." It's a funky line played in unison by Mayhew and Gordon. The solos by the tenor, trombonist, and Cherry perpetuate the soulful vibe, as Harvie S lays down bass patterns of creeping irresistibleness.

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Scott Albin