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Virginia Mayhew Quartet: Mary Lou Williams – The Next 100 Years

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Virginia Mayhew’s ambitious, labor-intensive research project into the art of Mary Lou Williams began in 2009. She needed a female jazz musician to memorialize for a “Women in Jazz” festival. She chose Williams when she discovered that 2010 would be the 100th anniversary of Williams’ birth.

Mayhew admits that prior to undertaking the investigation, she was unaware of the breadth and depth of Williams’ career. She is not alone. Williams died in 1981, and today her music is more heard about than heard. But in the 1930s and ’40s, she was the most important female pianist, composer and arranger in the male-dominated world of jazz. Many major bandleaders of the swing era, from Andy Kirk to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, used her tunes and charts. Williams was a restless, curious artist. She embraced bebop in the ’50s and in 1977 recorded in duo with Cecil Taylor at Carnegie Hall. She wrote several hundred compositions, but the only one that can be called a standard is “What’s Your Story Morning Glory.” It had a second life with new lyrics as “Black Coffee,” and was recorded by everyone from Sarah Vaughan to k.d. lang.

Mayhew was given full access to the Mary Lou Williams Collection at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies. She listened to more than 200 tracks of Williams’ music before choosing her favorites and beginning her transcriptions and arrangements. The best news about this album is that it never sounds like a research project. It sounds like jazz for the people: shot through with the blues, human with body heat, alive with many emotions but most of all joy.

The eight Williams tunes are a rich trove. Besides the blues, the foremost ingredients are life-affirming swing and elegant melodies. But there is a squiggly bop line, “N.M.E.,” and a harmonically advanced piece called “Cancer,” one of 12 movements from the Zodiac Suite . It is hard to believe that “Cancer,” with its fragmentary counterpoint and convoluted melodic development, comes from 1945. In Williams’ bios, it is often said that she mentored Monk. “Cancer” makes the claim credible; it sounds like Monk before Monk. Mayhew’s solo grows directly out of the tune’s complexity, yet, like everything else on the album, digs in and drives.

Mayhew is a vividly expressive tenor saxophonist with intriguing ideas, slippery phrasing and a variable tone. On “Medi I” the jagged edges of her sound contradict the ballad atmosphere, then her pronunciation continuously shifts in response to evolving emotion. The harder she swings, the more clarion her tone, like on “J.B.’s Waltz.”

Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, who plays on half the tracks, is a powerful presence in the ensembles and a madcap humorist in solos, especially with the plunger. He scrapes and grunts and blusters all over “Morning Glory.” But this album’s ace in the hole is guitarist Ed Cherry. “Blues drenched” is not a cliché when applied to Cherry. Every time he solos, a rapt calm descends and a timeless story begins, familiar yet still a revelation when told with blues truth.

This beautifully recorded, nicely packaged, well-notated album is the most meaningful form of tribute. It is a contemporary, personal, deeply felt encounter 
with Williams’ music, and it should help keep a great American artist from being forgotten.

Originally Published