A Soulful Mary Lou Williams Tribute from Virginia Mayhew
This blog doesn’t spend much time in the past these days: if you’re just getting into jazz and discovering the classics for the first time, there are plenty of places to do that and this isn’t usually one of them. For that reason, coverage of recordings here typically focuses on original material by artists who are usually if not always flying a little under the radar. But every so often an album appears that offers a fresh take on older sounds. Tenor saxophonist Virginia Mayhew’s recent quartet album, Mary Lou Williams – The Next 100 Years is a delightful example.
For starters, just the idea of doing a Williams homage without piano is intriguing. But maybe it’s just as well – it saves some piano player from cruel comparisons. This album also gives guitarist Ed Cherry – who explores a whole ‘nother side on his jaunty new B3 record, It’s All Good – a chance to go deep into moody blues. Williams’ long career spanned from the hot jazz era of the 20s to the avant garde of the 70s; like Williams, Mayhew is comfortable in diverse milieus from inside to out. Rounding out the group here are bassist Harvie S and drummer Andy Watson, plus contributions from Wycliffe Gordon on trombone.
The songs here are often disarmingly beautiful: Williams had a rare command of the blues and a laserlike, uncluttered sense of melody, which the band grasps impressively. They take their time getting into J.B.’s Waltz – one of a number of jazz waltzes here – and work there way up to an absolutely gorgeous, chordally-infused Cherry solo. Medi II follows a moody chromatic trajectory to some wry, almost vaudevillian fun from the rhythm section. By contrast, Medi I, a 1973 piece alternately titled Searching for Love is a nonchalantly intense soul/blues tune – it sounds a lot like Doc Pomus’ Lonely Avenue – dark stuff lit up with vivid and spacious Mayhew and Cherry solos.
The 1954 tune O.W., inspired by Don Byas, swings a minor blues with incisive, staccato work from bass, sax and guitar in turn, followed by the richly suspenseful Cancer, from Williams’ 1945 Zodiac Suite, twelve minutes of judicious chromatic intensity and a fleet-footed, terse Mayhew solo. What’s Your Story Morning Glory – the original version of the standard Black Coffee, for which Williams was never credited -sounds here like it’s the prototype for One for My Baby. Mayhew does this as a story for two voices, first wistful in the wee hours with the sax and guitar and ending by contrasting against Gordon’s completely unexpected, comedic lines.
NME – short for New Musical Express – draws inspiration from Byas and also the Ellington band, a vividly flurrying swing tune. The last of the Williams numbers is Waltz Boogie, one of her catchiest. Mayhew also includes two inspired originals. The first is the nebulously Monk-ish One for Mary Lou, which the saxophonist builds to an allusive triumph – to swing it would be too obvious. The album closes with the warmly bluesy, relaxed 5 For Mary Lou. Beyond what they offer musically, albums like this serve other purposes – they make you want to revisit the originals as well as to go deeper into the works of a bandleader who completely gets what this music is all about: soul.
Mayhew is also featured on another soulful recent revisitation of vintage material, the Duke Ellington Legacy’s Single Petal of a Rose.
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