Nobody embodied the jazz tradition quite like Mary Lou Williams. She was born in 1910 and helped define stride piano, big-band, and boogie-woogie when those genres were at their peak. When modernism came in, she befriended Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. As early as the 1950s, she programmed concerts and recordings that sought to celebrate different historical styles from ragtime to bebop; in the ’60s she was quick to accept funk beats as well as the harmonic innovations of Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock.
On her 1976 album Free Spirits, Williams plays with a Hancock rhythm section. Buster Williams had been in the epochal Mwandishi sextet and Mickey Roker had powered Hancock’s famous Speak Like a Child. Both the bassist and the drummer had been working frequently with Williams in New York piano rooms. Roker told me he played with Williams at the Hickory House for seven months straight, and Buster Williams says he joined the trio there after Bob Cranshaw had gotten too busy taping the music to Sesame Street.
Free Spirits is a good title, for there is something notably casual and “free” about Williams’ pianism in this context. She never forces an agenda with the bass and drums, and her improvisations meander in the best way. The left hand is restrained yet rhythmic and the right-hand melodies peck around in a classic call-and-response. Perhaps nothing is obviously avant-garde (except the dissonant “bells” she lays down behind the bass solos), but it is difficult to imagine any of her pre-bop peers being quite so hip, especially with this rhythm section.
The CD reissue does the music a bit of a disservice, with alternate takes and uptempo bonus tracks. On the original LP, there were seven pieces, all hewing to a shared aesthetic. One of the tracks is “All Blues” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and both albums have something in common in terms of a steady, relaxed blues mood.
Williams loved the idea of a blues continuum, and programmed Free Spirits to feature young voices that met her standard for excellence in the tradition. “Pale Blue,” by Buster Williams, features lush voicings that are the height of Hancock-ian sophistication. The title track and “Baby Man” are memorable compositions by John Stubblefield, a tenor player who had just arrived in town with an avant-garde blues aesthetic somewhere between Stanley Turrentine and Pharoah Sanders. The album begins with a well-known theme by soulful pianist Bobby Timmons, “Dat Dere,” which must have been intended as a tribute, for Timmons had died the previous year. The trio swings each blues number as hard as it can be swung, especially on the pianist’s own “Blues for Timme,” where the feel in the bass and drums is simply outrageous. Both Roker and Buster Williams are well-recorded and delightfully interactive throughout.
Jelly Roll Morton said that jazz required the Spanish tinge, so Mary Lou Williams was sure to include a Latin novelty number, the old standard “Temptation,” done somewhat like Ahmad Jamal. The last track on the LP is a bright funk piece, the original composition “Ode to St. Cecile,” a perfect representation of 1975, when the album was recorded. Roker played drums in church, and his beat here might make even a diehard atheist a believer.
Mary Lou Williams has always been a beloved jazz musician, but her commitment to the whole continuum has frustrated attempts to secure her place in a conventional historical narrative. Yet when that commitment becomes the only way to discuss her contribution, other problems arise. More press was given to her 1977 album Embraced, with Cecil Taylor, than Free Spirits, probably because “Mary Lou Williams played it all from Dixieland to free jazz” is a satisfying pull quote. Embraced has good moments, but I regret Taylor’s seeming inability to lighten up and meet the older master on her terrain. A lot of the time it sounds like he’s mansplaining “This is modern jazz” to Williams!
Free Spirits is the great Mary Lou Williams disc from her last decade. Pure pleasure and deep soul, fresh then and fresh now.
The Chronological Classics, 1927-1940 (Classics, 1992)—Includes early virtuoso solos like “Night Life” and “Little Joe from Chicago”
Zodiac Suite (Smithsonian Folkways, 1995)—Avant-garde composition from 1945
A Keyboard History (Jazztone, 1955)—Superb ’50s trio with Wendell Marshall and Osie Johnson, one of the earliest historically-minded concept recordsOriginally Published