Sunday, 16 September 2007

Mary Lou Williams...

What can you say about a song titled 'Jesus Is The Best'...?



MARY LOU WILLIAMS
Mary Lou’s Mass
SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS (SFW CD 40815)

Willis; O.W.; Praise The Lord; Old Time Spiritual; The Lord Says; Act of Contrition; Kyrie Eleison (Lord, Have Mercy); Gloria; Medi I & Medi II; In His Day/Peace I Leave With You/Alleluia; Lazarus; Credo; Credo (instrumental); Holy, Holy, Holy; Amen; Our Father; Lamb of God; it Is Always Spring; People In Trouble; One; Praise The Lord (Come Holy Spirit); Jesus Is The Best; Tell Him Not To Talk To Long; I Have A Dream.

Mary Lou Williams (p/org); Roger Glenn (f); Julius Watkins (frh); David Amram (frh); Sonny Henry (g); Leon Atkinson (g); Carline Ray (b); Chris White (b); Milton Suggs (b); Al Harewood (d); David Parker (d);David Parker (d); Abdul Rahman (perc); Ralph MacDonald (perc); Leon Thomas (v); James Bailey (v); Milton Grayson (v); Carl Hall (v); Honi Gordon (v); Eileen Gilbert (v); Randy Peyton (v); Christine Spencer (v). (1969-72).

Although religion has been closely related to jazz since its earliest days, it would be hard to name any other statement as overtly religious or on such a grand scale as Mary Lou’s Mass. Unlike Ellington’s Sacred Music, this was conceived as liturgical music, designed to be performed within a conventional mass. Most of it has previously been issued as Music For Peace, though this lavish package adds bonus material, a hefty booklet, and state of the art re-mastering.

When premiered in 1971, Music For Peace was even enhanced by the visual theatre of Alvin Ailey’s dance troupe. Regarded by Williams as a major statement of magnum opus proportions, she summed it up as her ‘Music for the Soul’. Spanning spirituals, soul jazz and gospel, with a liberal helping of funk, the work goes beyond simply offering praise and passes some pretty pointed social commentary on the era. In fact it is the social concerns expressed over themes including Vietnam and racism that make this release so potentially rewarding for agnostic or atheistic listeners less inclined to offer ‘hosannahs’.

Williams draws heavily on Biblical scripture to illustrate her contemporary concerns, making the message all the more powerful for those in the know. A scattering of instrumental tracks, sounding not unlike like The Three Sounds from the same period, remind us that Williams was as formidable a pianist as she was a talented arranger. This is however a predominantly voice-based music, and as well as songs with featured vocalists there are full scale choral arrangements, all generally framed by breezy flute choruses and funky back beats.

“Tell Him Not To Talk Too Long” is one of the few recorded instances of Williams playing organ, and along with “I Have A Dream” it was recorded in 1969 in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. “Jesus Is The Best” is pure Gospel music, the lyrics somewhere between a football chant and Jesus Christ, Superstar, and is one of the few moments where solemnity is left to one side. Even the bonus material sounds like it comes from the same mass, so consistent is Williams in her approach. It may be a bit of a one-off in your collection, but this powerful music deserves revisiting.

Fred Grand
Jazz Review, July 2005)

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