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Chris Pattishall Channels Mary Lou Williams on Debut Album

The pianist gives the Zodiac Suite a 21st-century update

Chris Pattishall (photo: Ebru Yildiz)
Chris Pattishall (photo: Ebru Yildiz)

Before he knew what he wanted to do for his debut album, Chris Pattishall was adamant about what he didn’t want to do. “I didn’t want to make an ‘Introducing Chris Pattishall,’” the 34-year-old pianist says. “Those types of records, oftentimes there’s great playing and a really imaginative, ambitious energy, but I’m much more interested in music that takes fuller advantage of microphones and preamps and recording consoles, how that imparts color to the sound.”

Instead of filling his first recording as a leader with his own tunes, Pattishall found source material in the 75-year-old Zodiac Suite, recorded for Folkways Records by the late Mary Lou Williams. Pattishall transcribed the 12 movements of Williams’ creation and then—with producer Rafiq Bhatia and a core ensemble of Riley Mulherkar (trumpet), Ruben Fox (saxophone), Marty Jaffe (bass), and Jamison Ross (drums)—set about giving the work a 21st-century update.

Pattishall’s decision to record Zodiac was anything but impulsive. His exposure to Williams’ music goes back years; he’s a native of Durham, N.C., where she was an artist-in-residence at Duke University from 1977 to 1981, the year that she died in Durham. “I grew up close to [Duke’s] East Campus, where the music program is,” Pattishall says. “There are buildings named after Mary Lou Williams because of her time there. And this music is something that I had been living with and learning and revisiting and teaching to a number of different musicians, over almost a decade at this point.”

His interest in the subject matter isn’t superficial either. “I’m not into reading my horoscope,” he explains. “It’s more about the fact that we construct these elaborate, beautiful, and crazy complicated systems based on just looking up at the sky. You think about mathematics in the medieval Islamic world as global travel is flourishing, and they’re figuring out how to navigate the seas with devices based on the stars. We’ve all looked to the sky to teach us. We use it as a chalkboard to impart lessons to future generations. There’s something really universal about it.”

Many of the arrangements on Zodiac—each piece titled after a specific sign, from “Taurus” through “Aries”—adhere closely to those written by Williams for solo piano. At times, though, Pattishall and his accompanists take broad liberties, extending the reach of the music to places Williams likely never imagined.

“Part of the reason I asked Rafiq to produce it is because I knew that his focus and his attention to critical detail is remarkable,” Pattishall says. “He knows the context of the decisions that I’m making. There were some moments where we essentially were mixing approaches in terms of recording the band playing and then doing post-production and layering. What we’re doing is subtle, but it’s very expressive, and it brings out things that you would never hear if you recorded it and mixed it the way that jazz records are typically recorded. I didn’t want this to be strictly a tribute record.”

Although Zodiac, recorded in Brooklyn, is the first full-length album to bear Pattishall’s name, it’s hardly a maiden effort. A pianist since childhood, he was already playing professionally by his teens, including time spent in a funk cover band. “I was probably such a little piece of shit,” he confesses, “because then I would have to go do my little high-school jazz combo recital and I’d just be like, ‘Come on, guys. I’m not even getting paid for this.’ I was young and insecure.”

He attended Florida State University, where he studied with Marcus Roberts, then relocated to the New York area more than a decade ago, attending William Paterson University and studying with Harold Mabern and Mulgrew Miller. Once Pattishall’s thoughts turned toward a solo recording, the concept of retooling the Williams suite came into clearer focus. He immersed himself in it for years, “just sitting on the music and letting it mature,” he says.

Now, with Zodiac released, Pattishall is looking toward his next move. He’s already composed an equally ambitious work he calls Fictions, based on the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges; he’s also doing production work, teaming with Bhatia on new ideas, and eyeing film scores, orchestral music, and other prospects. “As much as I love jazz, in a way it’s just one process,” he says. “I’m super-interested in music that involves me thinking in different ways.”

Learn more about Zodiac on Amazon!

Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.