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Five Essential Mary Lou Williams Albums

Need to catch up on the work of this belatedly recognized pioneer? Here's where to start.

Mary Lou Williams Zodiac SuiteZodiac Suite (Asch, 1945; reissued by Smithsonian Folkways, 1995)
Williams’ masterpiece is both an impressionistic representation of the signs of the zodiac and a striking series of portraits of her musical colleagues. The song cycle, which still sounds utterly modern today, is brilliantly cohesive despite its diverse range of moods and styles. Though never fully realized in the way its composer envisioned, the Zodiac Suite has continued to reveal its riches through reinterpretations by Geri Allen and Chris Pattishall as well as symphonic expansions.

Mary Lou Williams A Keyboard HistoryA Keyboard History (Jazztone, 1955)
A lovely summation of the first part of Williams’ career, A Keyboard History dips into everything from stride to bop in a set of relaxed, intimate solo and trio tunes. The songs capture the mix of the sprightly and serious that so enlivened the pianist’s approach, with tracks like “Fandangle” and “Roll ’Em” spotlighting her dancing left hand and agile way with melody.

 

Mary Lou Williams Mary Lou's MassMary Lou’s Mass (Mary, 1975; reissued by Smithsonian Folkways, 2005)
After converting to Catholicism, Williams devoted herself to composing religious music. But as with Alice Coltrane later, reverence was never allowed to eclipse originality. Mary Lou’s Mass, like so much of Williams’ work, encompasses the totality of her influences while tapping into modern developments. The influence of gospel and spirituals is inevitable, and her blues roots are always present, but the Mass also mines contemporary soul, rock, and funk trends, in part perhaps under the influence of collaborator Alvin Ailey.

Mary Lou Williams Free SpiritsFree Spirits (SteepleChase, 1976)
The most remarkable aspect of Williams is her ability to make herself at home in any setting; there simply is no shallow end in her pool of knowledge. Capturing a top-notch trio with bassist Buster Williams and Mickey Roker, Free Spirits never sounds out of step with its times or like an older musician struggling to keep pace with younger counterparts. Williams is clearly conversant with the changing tides of the day and embraces modernity’s sharp edges to compelling ends.

Mary Lou Williams The History of JazzThe History of Jazz (Folkways, 1978)
An invaluable memoir as well as a piece of music education, The History of Jazz is a captivating tour through the evolution of the form with Williams as its strongly opinionated guide.

Mary Lou Williams: Mother of Us All

Chronology: Mary Lou Williams and the Spirits of ’76

 

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.