Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Virginia Mayhew Quartet: Mary Lou Williams — The Next 100 Years

Renma Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Mary Lou Williams — The Next 100 Years

Unless you’re a bona fide senior citizen or jazz historian, you may not be familiar with Mary Lou Williams, and that’s a shame. She was born in 1910 and died in ’81, so many potential fans never had an opportunity to hear her in person. Further, during the period that encompassed the 1960s until her death, the genre emphasis was on the big bands and bop and, but Williams preferred to play straight-ahead jazz with combos. 

As a result, her recording endeavors were limited; so is her discography.

All that said, the important indication of her quality comes from the impact she had with jazz icons. She was playing with Duke Ellington when she was just 15; at 19, she was asked to join Andy Kirk’s famous Clouds of Joy band; she later rejoined Ellington’s Orchestra and then had a gig at the famous Café Society. Throughout this period, she was writing arrangements for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, and was mentoring the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron and Hank Jones. They knew how great she was!

Williams’ career flourished through the 1970s, and she performed at numerous concerts and festivals. She was a guess artist at the White House and participated at Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall Concert, both in 1978.

Saxophonist/composer/arranger and historian Virginia Mayhew is a huge Williams fan. Mayhew has been active in the New York City jazz scene since 1987, and has worked with many renowned artists, including some who were part of Williams’ tenure. This tribute album, one of Mayhew’s projects, concentrates on Williams’ prowess as a composer; during her career, she produced more than 100 compositions, and well over that number of arrangements for name bands.  Ten of her best are featured here.

You’ll immediately notice how “modern” everything sounds, which is further proof of how far ahead of her time Williams was. Nothing sound dated. Admittedly, Mayhew’s re-arrangement skill has much to do with this. Additionally, the excellent artists involved also deserve credit: Guitarist Ed Cherry, bassist Harvie S, drummer Andy Watson and guest trombonist Wycliffe Gordon joined Mayhew, who plays a lotta tenor sax. 

The result: a joyful, swinging group that plays the heck out of just a few of Williams’ charts. She would have loved it!

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