Virginia Mayhew Quartet. Mary Lou Williams: The Next Hundred Years. Renma Recordings.
Mainstream jazz is Mary Lou Williams. The pianist/composer was at the fulcrum of 30’s Swing and famously nurtured Bop in the 40’s. She remained an innovative energy in big bands including the Philharmonic and the avant-garde till her passing in 1981.
To mark Miss Williams’ 100th Birthday Saxophonist/arranger Virginia Mayhew joins the artists (Geri Allen, Intakt Records; Sumi Tonooka, ARC records) who made tribute recordings. The Next 100 Years, features eight MLW tunes arranged for the saxophonist quartet and quintet—and two Mayhew originals inspired by Williams.
Virginia’s tenor, big and swinging in the manner of Sonny Rollins, leads the dance on “J.B.’s Waltz” with Dizzy alumni Ed Cherry comping behind on his guitar, teasing out bends in the melodic line. Virginia improv’s lightly ahead of Cherry’s floating chords with Andy Watson crafting the drum-work that makes the music fun and funny.
Two more 70’s tune follow: Medi II and Medi I. The former is a hot uptempo minor blues with guest wizard Wycliffe Gordon on trombone. Medi I, the most impressive track on the album, opens with a profound bass solo by Harvie S that evolves into a blues guitar meditation. It’s that round-midnite sound of haunted bars and empty streets with the pale street lights reflected in splashes from Andy Watson’s cymbals.
“O.W.” is an uptempo, seductive bop melody from 1953 that bobs and weaves like Sugar Ray Robinson taking back his 5th title. “Cancer,” from Zodiac Suite (1945), has dark, ruminative, Monkish moves with Mayhew, Gordon and Harvie S singing in unison along a profound melodic line that is simply stunning. Andy Watson again intrigues with natural splash, spray, reverb and echo timbres.
Miss Williams’ biggest hit comes next:”What’s Your Story, Morning Glory(1938),” better known when it acquired lyrics (for Peggy Lee) and the title “Black Coffee (1948).” Deep bluesy guitar and elegant bass make it breath, and Gordon’s 30’s cartoony growls make it speak.
Virginia Mayhew closes her tribute with two originals. “One for Mary Lou” is a dazzling, uptempo minor blues motif based on “Medi II” and developed imaginatively as Miles might have done it. “5 For Mary Lou” comes out of the boppy ¾ “Waltz Boogie” in a mellow tone with a smooth sail-away solo by Wycliffe Gordon.
The way a picture can stand in for a thousand words, so this album of music can stand for a thousand stories about the life and times of Jazz. Virginia Mayhew has done a remarkable job translating the language of Williams’ piano into living saxophonese.
Miss Mayhew also leads the Duke Ellington Legacy, responsible for the superb Single Pedal of a Rose (Renma Recordings, 2012) which I look forward to reviewing quite soon.
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