February 4th - Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams - Mary Lou Williams, 1964

 By the time Mary Lou Williams recorded this self-titled album she had been a working musician for thirty years and a retired one for seven. Eleven years after the New York Philharmonic premiered her "Zodiac Suite" (which I'm sure to write about later on) Williams was received into the Catholic Church and effectively stopped playing music; she recorded this album on the advice of her priest and as an antidote to the sounds of contemporary jazz, which in the liner notes she is quoted as calling "disturbed and crazy." Her take on the jazz of the era (which, compared to just a few short years later, was remarkably tame! I think she's basically just talking about Sun Ra at this point) aside, this album is a interesting and excellent mix of jazz, gospel, blues and choral music. 

Starting with Black Christ of the Andes (St. Martin de Porres) the album moves back and forth between choral pieces with jazz influence and classic jazz combo pieces. The Devil is somewhere in the middle - it reminds me of Sunnyland Slim's The Devil is a Busy Man and is written with a mix of seriousness and humor, where the words may be funny but you come away with no doubt of Williams' moral convictions.

For her complaints about "crazy" tones, A Fungus Amungus gets pretty avant-garde, before ending the album with what I can only describe as the Catholic funk party track Praise the Lord. It's not like any other jazz I've heard, and while it feels cheap to compare it to the work of co-religionist Flannery O'Connor, but there is something to the feeling of flinty morality that feels similar. An incredible personage and album.

Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways