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Mary Lou Williams: Black Christ of the Andes

Mary Lou Williams

Although the diverse career of the pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams keeps coming into fuller focus, there always seems to be more to investigate. A major contributor to the swing era through her work with Andy Kirk’s orchestra, Williams went on to incorporate bop, and later, current music including blues-based funk, into her work. Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes (Smithsonian Folkways) offers performances highlighting her supple jazz piano, alongside pieces reflecting Williams’ religious beliefs. A reissue of a 1964 Williams album, the 2004 release adds four more trio performances featuring bassist Percy Heath.

The trio numbers showcase a pianist with a clean, inviting attack whose waste-free lines echoed her identity as a memorable composer. Williams’ ease with the blues harks back to her Kansas City roots, but her openness to newer sounds also gets a fascinating hearing on the solo “A Fungus a Mungus,” a quasi free-jazz piece. “My Blue Heaven,” Billy Taylor’s “A Grand Night for Swinging” and originals like “Nicole” find Williams purely in her element, playing mainstream jazz with finesse and charm.

The religious works range from the gospel funk of “Praise the Lord” to the structured choral performance (with Williams adding incidental piano) “St. Martin de Porres,” a piece that drew high praise from the notoriously demanding jazz critic Hugh Panassie. Categories just couldn’t contain Williams, one of the main reasons she continues to draw our attention today.

Originally Published