Sunday, September 18, 2005


MARY LOU WILLIAMS - Mary Lou's Mass; Black Christ of the Andes CDs (Smithsonian Folkways)
Just when you think the well has run dry, you accidentally stumble across an artist you've never even heard of before, and quietly, steadily but surely become obsessed with their work. For myself, lately, that figure has been the jazz pianist known as Mary Lou Williams. Her recorded debut stretches all the way back to the year 1930, she played or wrote with everyone from Duke Ellington to Cecil Taylor (even recording a disastrous album with the latter in 1977, a messy, completely unrehearsed live set which I must hear... anyone land me a copy?), spent almost 20 years in the semi-wilderness whilst she dedicated nearly all her time to working with the Catholic church, and then passed away in 1981. Her style, which encompassed everything from gospel to modal to hard-bop to borderline avant-garde, reads like a history of 20th century jazz. Her recordings for the Folkways label are an incredible grab-bag of all of the above, a truly eccentric mix of funkified gospel, Monk-ish piano trio opuses, bluesy dirges and occasional flurries of cluttered, abstract solos which clash glaringly with the bulk of her work, but paint a complete picture of a really unique artist.

Mary Lou's Mass, from 1974, is (obviously) the most outright religious offering and more of a gospel disc than anything resembling "jazz". I have no beef with God-botherers of any stripe (though I remain an unconvinced non-believer), so the religious angle is something which doesn't bother me at all, though the occasional cheeseball choral singing brings in the cringe factor at times. Nevertheless, this is simply such a strange and wonderful mix of funky rhythms, stomping hymns and rollicking piano strides that, if you're going to go on a MLW binge, you might as well throw it in the pile.

The pick of the litter is her Black Christ of the Andes opus from 1964. Dig those song titles: "Anima Christi", "Dirge Blues", "A Fungus A Mungus". The opening track, "St. Martin de Porres", sits somewhere between a barbershop quartet, doo-wop and the kind of ridiculous vocal histrionics you'd expect from a Magma disc, before things settle down to a series of quieter piano pieces, only to be broken up by a couple of soulful R & B numbers. I'm way past the stage now where my diet of "jazz" listening has to equal nothing more than a giant headache. Yes, I willingly own and love a rather large collection of albums by the likes of Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and others like them. Their music is a room-clearing world of joy I shall ever bask in, but there comes a time when even noise idiots like myself come around to enjoying jazz of the non-screech variety. That day, at least for me, hit home roughly five years back after the purchase of a Thelonious Monk box set, and I've been making a steady headway ever since (recently even exploring the hinterlands of goddamn ragtime! Ghostworld, here we come!). The point? MLW's reputation as a vaguely "avant garde" jazz artist is right on the money, though her music is, for the most part, not likely to upset your parents to any great extent. "A Fungus..." is the strangest thing here, a solo piano piece which aimlessly clunks around the keys to jarring effect (that's a good thing, by the way), though for me, what makes the music of MLW work so beautifully is her completely unconscious mix of styles. MLW's music must be listened to as a whole, and as a concept, as opposed to the typical track-by-track basis. Or, to make a short story short: her music is conceptual, or at least her albums on Folkways are, and these two platters, as well as her Zoning and Zodiac Suite LPs, are well worth investigating.

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