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Mary Lou Williams: Nite Life

This marvelous collection, recorded in 1971, does full justice to Mary Lou Williams. There are twenty-four performances of solo piano here, superior notes by her mentor, Father Peter O’Brien, S.J., and over thirty minutes of “jazzspeak,” where she tells of her beginnings and career. Besides the content of the original LP, there are no less than eleven previously unissued selections. Early successes like “Nite Life” and “Cloudy” are here, and two takes each of “Little Joe from Chicago,” “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” and “Scratching the Gravel,” along with several unfamiliar originals and three Joplin titles.

She was not at all pleased, Fr. O’Brien reveals, to be asked to play the ragtime pieces at a concert, from which these three versions derive. When she “laid into the piano” with jazz abandon, it provoked laughter which, he says, “Threw her just a bit.” The subsequent applause presumably mollified her.

Reference to the sex of this supreme artist, the greatest lady jazz musician, is largely irrelevant. One tends to think of feminine hands as small and therefore restrictive on the keyboard, but her strong, expressive touch dispels such thought. Not many male jazz pianists have exhibited more or comparable command. The way her left hand supplements her treble phrases is very personal and a study in itself. The skilled arranger that she was isn’t, of course, plainly illustrated in piano solos, but the composer certainly is. “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” and “Scratching the Gravel,” for example, deserve to be much better known than they are. Many a jaded repertoire would benefit from their inclusion.

“For the Figs,” a demonstration in hard-swinging stride, was given its title by Fr. O’Brien, with no derogatory intent, to be sure. “Offertory,” like the two great takes of “Anima Christi,” is full of rejoicing spirit. Mary Lou’s conversion to Catholicism entailed no mock solemnity. But “Blues for John Hammond” is serious indeed, as John would have liked a blues to be, and the first disc ends with the three-part “Nite Life Variations,” which illustrate the pianist’s strength as an improviser and are a reminder that she remembered the jazz past with affection, while always looking ahead.

Originally Published