Smithsonian Folkways proudly celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original Asch Records release of Mary Lou Williams’ work, Zodiac Suite. Performing solo and accompanied by bassist Al Lucas and drummer Jack Parker, Williams crafted these pieces as a series of dedications to fellow musicians born under each astrological sign. This 12-part interpretation of the zodiac was crafted so each movement comprises a set of jazz tone poems. Six alternate takes, mastered from the original acetates, are featured on this reissue. “Irresistible themes…blending sophistication and intimacy.” – DownBeat
With just a casual interest in astrology, Mary Lou Williams created her 1945 Zodiac Suite as a series of character sketches, musical portraits of friends from each sign that she would debut on a weekly radio show. “Aries” is for Ben Webster and Billie Holiday, “Taurus” for Duke Ellington, and “Libra” for Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. The pieces include piano solos, duets with bassist Al Lucas, and trios with the addition of drummer Jack “The Bear” Parker. The suite is both a remarkable exercise in extended composition and an index of Williams’s varied palette. Her mix of blues and boogie roots and strikingly modernist harmonies is sometimes similar to Monk’s, while her lighter, impressionist playing can evoke Claude Debussy (and the way Debussy colored the piano music of Bix Beiderbecke). The cumulative work, though, has a warmly sustained lyricism that can only suggest comparisons with Ellington. The Zodiac Suite would assume more ambitious forms, with a chamber orchestra setting for the entire suite later in 1945 and a large orchestra adaptation of three movements a year later. Dizzy Gillespie recorded three movements with his big band in 1957. But the intimacy of these original recordings is very special, with Williams effectively blurring the line between composition and improvisation. –Stuart Broomer
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