Over the course of her nearly 60-year career, Mary Lou Williams was like a Swiss army knife of jazz, having a go at just about every movement between ragtime and free jazz. This lifelong musical exploration culminated in a devotion to ecclesiastical music; most of her later recordings are spiritually informed (Black Christ of the Andes and Zoning, two other excellent recent Smithsonian Folkways reissues, are excellent examples). Williams’ spirituality awakening happened most suddenly in 1954 when, at the age of 44, she walked off a Parisian stage in the middle of a performance, disappeared for three years and reemerged as a confirmed Catholic who would spend much of the rest of her life spreading the twin gospels of music and the Lord. These two passions meet to great effect on Mary Lou’s Mass, a long out-of-print, papally commissioned suite that showcases some of Williams’ most personal and mature work.
Blending late-’60s funk, show-tune quality cabaret singing and biblical scripture, Mass is often shocking in its commingling of styles: “Lamb of God” is Williams’ successful attempt at writing a modern Gregorian chant; “Lazarus” uncannily juxtaposes a jaunty guitar melody over bassist Carline Ray’s vocalese retelling of the scripture; “It Is Always Spring” sets inspired back-and-forth play between Williams’ piano and soloist Roger Glenn’s flute underneath Leon Thomas’ wordless yodeling. Some of the songs represent more genre-homogenous explorations, such as the authentic Southern gospel flavor of “The Lord Says” or the rousing bop of “Willis,” but every take snaps with innovation and life. This sumptuous and richly annotated rerelease is long overdue and utterly praiseworthy.