Zodiac Suite Revisited
Mary Records M104

By Ken Waxman

Designating this as a disc by the Mary Lou Williams Collective rather than as the more saleable Geri Allen piano trio confirms the purpose of the session. Part of an ongoing campaign by The Mary Lou Williams Foundation to keep contemporary the music of Williams (1910-1981), Allen and company extend and interpret Williams’ Zodiac Suite from 1945 and other pieces, ending with an Allen salute to the pioneering composer-pianist.

This is much more than one of those dates where singer X salutes Ella Fitzgerald or pianist Y runs through his favorite Thelonious Monk material. Williams, whose career highpoints stretched from being chief arranger and composer for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy in 1930s Kansas City to a dual piano disc with Cecil Taylor in 1977, was constantly innovating. Pianistically, Williams’ style linked stride master James P. Johnson, innovative swing pianists Art Tatum and Earl Hines to the bebop-modern jazz advances of Bud Powell, Herbie Nichols and Monk.

Detroit-born Allen is similarly protean, with a style that goes on from modern touchstones to take in Herbie Hancock and touches of McCoy Tyner and Taylor, although her association with her husband, trumpeter Wallace Roney, has caused her to shy away from the avant-gardism of her earlier career.

Other-directed, ZODIAC SUITE REVISITED doesn’t call for outside playing anyhow, and she’s aided by three of jazz’s most accomplished. Drummer Billy Hart, best-known for his association with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Hancock, works regularly with Allen. So does bassist Buster Williams, who also was in the bands of Hancock and played with Williams herself in the 1960s and 1970s. On two selections Andrew Cyrille, who played with Williams early in his career, and extensively with Taylor, takes the drum chair.

Honoring a series of Williams’ associates – including Duke Ellington, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, trombonist Vic Dickenson, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and many others – the most enduring parts of the suite are the trio selections. The solo piano selections, even in Allen’s hands are a little too showy and romantic with passing chords taking the place of development. Still the younger pianist does bring out the gospel inflections in “Aquarius”, which in this incarnation suggests a precursor to “Lean on Me”.

With bass and drums in tow, however, Allen is able to work out as many allusions and variations as she desires from finger-snapping blues to keyboard-landscaped near waltzes. “Gemini”, for instance, shifts from a country’n’western ballad to a near-boogie-woogie tempo until other voicing gives it a more progressive architecture. “Virgo” has the feel of Errol Garner working out on “Bag’s Groove”, with Williams again holding the pedal point and a quirky melodic ending; meanwhile Hart’s martial cross rolls help personalize the balladic “Leo”.

Expanded with cymbal beats and low-pitched walking bass, “Taurus” moves from a vibrated intro downwards, as Allen’s stabbing lines are reminiscent both of stride and the advances of Monk and Nichols. Linked to this transformation is Nichols’ “The Bebop Waltz”- often played by Williams – which here wiggles from Allen’s flowery passing tones to resemble Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”.

A bonus, Allen’s tribute to Williams, “Thank You Madam”, underlines the differences between the two pianists. A softly resolved modal ballad, its pedaling cadences and low-frequency dynamics alternate impressionism with tougher episodes.

An appropriate salute from one pianist/composer to another, ZODIAC SUITE REVISITED bodes well for future Mary Lou Williams Collective projects.

Track Listing: Zodiac Suite: [1.Aries 2. Taurus 3. Gemini 4. Cancer 5. Leo 6. Virgo 7. Libra 8. Scorpio 9. Sagittarius 10. Capricorn 11. Aquarius 12. Pisces ] 13. The BeBop Waltz* 14. Intermission 15. Thank You Madam*

Personnel: Geri Allen (piano); Buster Williams (bass); Andrew Cyrille* or Billy Hart (drums)