Trio 3 + Geri Allen

January 20, 2012

Celebrating Mary Lou Williams: Live At Birdland New York
Intakt CD 187

A modernist salute to Mary Lou Williams, a pioneering woman composer/pianist, from Geri Allen, a contemporary stylist with similar talents, the remarkable factor about this disc, may be Allen’s choice of playing partners: the members of Trio 3. A band which more commonly works with spikier fare, the sounds on Trio 3’s CDs usually falls chronologically between what is created by the dedicator and the dedicatée.

Williams (1910–1981), was pianist and chief arranger for Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy during the heyday of Kansas City Jazz in the 1930s; went on to be a friend and champion of early Boppers such as Thelonious Monk; composed suites and orchestral pieces throughout her life; and before the end of her career even preformed a duet concert with Cecil Taylor. Although the guiding force behind this pleasantly mainstream salute to Williams was Allen, an academic, post-Bop stylist, and a friend of Williams’ confident Peter F. O’Brien S.J., the Trio’s drummer Andrew Cyrille, worked with Williams early in his career, and more prominently spent an extended stint in Taylor’s unit.

The other Trio members have a similarly rooted background. One of the founders of St. Louis’ BAG collective, alto saxophonist Oliver Lake is best-known for his extended membership in the World Saxophone Quart as well as leading his own bands. Bassist Reggie Workman also leads his own groups after an apprenticeship that goes back to 1960s’ stints with both John Coltrane and Art Blakey.

Ranging through Williams’ compositions from the 1930s to the 1970s, the quartet interprets the pieces in a fashion that’s both swinging and staccato. Except for Allen’s solo recital-like version of “Libra” from the composer’s Zodiac Suite, which is given simple rococo coloration, the other pieces are more outgoing.

“New Musical Express” from the 1950s, for instance, garners a treatment that’s bows to both Bop and Boogie Woogie. Allen’s bravura reading includes passionate swing and kinetic strums while Lake’s passages encompass triple-vibrated, split-tone expressions, in which the odd Dolphyesque run appears. After Workman walks, then rappels up and down his swaying strings, the piece opens up for a Cyrille solo that includes claps, rebounds, drags and bounces, with rim shot action and a continuous beat keeping the line moving, Harmonizing at the finale, the pianist and the altoist together make it seem as if a big band is playing.

There’s the same feeling with “Roll ‘Em”, which Williams write for the 1936 Benny Goodman band. Although Workman walks at times and Cyrille pops and pumps, it’s likely Goodman would have given his disapproving hard-eyed “ray” to Lake’s solo in that it’s all squeak and splutter done with reed-bursting intensity. What defines the piece of course is the lick trading among the sections that follows the bassist’s slow-paced double-stopping. Cyrille rolls and beats time; Allen churns through colorful syncopation and tremolo patterns and Lake returns to recap a high-pitched melody variant.

Trio 3 +1 even add a (Rhythm &) bluesier cast to “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory”, the older pianist’s best-known composition. In his best Tab Smith-like fashion, Lake takes the piece a capella at the top, then transforming it too into a squeaker and screamer. However Allen maintains the pace with showy arpeggios and resolute glissandi, finally turning to low-frequency chording as Workman’s thumping bass and Lake’s blues variations take the tune out.

Commemorative of Williams without being imitative; adding avant-garde touches to her pieces in a configuration that she rarely if ever used; this live set is a fitting tribute to the pioneering composer/pianist. If only more contemporary players would treat older Jazz material this way, dreary recreations would be avoided and Jazz’s musical past could be properly and interestingly celebrated.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Introduction by Gianni Valenti, Birdland 2. Blues for Peter 3. Ghost of Love 4. New Musical Express 5. Intermission 6. What’s Your Story, Morning Glory 7. Libra 8. Roll

Personnel: Oliver Lake (alto saxophone); Geri Allen (piano); Reggie Workman (bass) and Andrew Cyrille (drums)