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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Umlaut Chamber Orchestra - Zodiac Suite (Mary Lou Williams) (Umlaut Records, 2023)

By Stuart Broomer

Please pardon this interruption of the site’s usual content for a review of a record that is unlikely to be thought of as ”free” or even, in some of parts, “jazz”, but it has a connection to it, documenting a work that radically expanded the materials and methods available to jazz and significantly insisted on who could make jazz, with how much freedom they might do it, and where they might do it. As such, it has a special historical relevance to the music regularly celebrated here. In terms of the sociology of jazz, Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite (1945) might be placed close to another work of its era, Billy Holiday’s recording of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit”.

Protest is not explicit in the work or its materials, but as a full-length orchestral work written in an idiom integrating authentic jazz elements, composed by an African-American woman whose musical career was based entirely in the world of jazz, it was a remarkable harbinger of things to come, as well as a work of significant distinction. Like Holiday, Williams drew special support from the radical community surrounding Café Society where she too performed regularly, including record producer Moe Asch, later to found Folkways Records, who recorded the original concert and released portions of it on his eponymous Asch label.

The score has been restored, and the orchestra here formed, by Pierre-Antoine Badaroux, a devoted researcher and advocate for Williams’ music and, perhaps not incidentally, also known as a free jazz saxophonist (the drummer is Antonin Gerbal, familiar from work with أحمد [Ahmed] and اسم [Ism]). The Umlaut Chamber Orchestra heard here is distinct from, though related to, the Umlaut Big Band, a “traditional” big band, also conducted by Badaroux, that explores music from the swing era, including that of Don Redman. In 2022, Badaroux and the Big Band released the two-CD set of Mary’s Ideas (Umlaut UMFR-CD3435), first fruits of Badaroux’s remarkable research into, and reconstruction of Williams’ big band and orchestral music. That set still reflects Williams in the context of the big bands for which she composed and arranged (Andy Kirk, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman) and correspondingly includes some improvisers. Zodiac Suite was an opportunity to explore further the advanced harmonic knowledge she was absorbing from the scores of contemporary European composers like Schoenberg, Berg and Hindemith.

The Umlaut Chamber Orchestra really is a chamber orchestra, combining eleven strings, a jazz rhythm section and seven wind players, among them flute, oboe, bassoon and French horn. Even with a conductor, everyone involved requires a sense of period phrasing, while a few of the band members extend idiomatic command to late swing improvising, most notably Geoffroy Gesser, who in addition to clarinet and bass clarinet section work turns in a thoroughly convincing tenor saxophone solo on “Cancer” in the style of the original performer, Ben Webster. Trumpeter Brice Pichard, trombonist Michaël Ballue and omnipresent pianist Matthieu Naulleau assume similar responsibilities.

The original work was drenched in references to Williams’ special position in the jazz world as someone whose associations eventually stretched from Jelly Roll Morton through Ellington, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell to Cecil Taylor, literally a complete history of jazz piano in her lifetime. “Libra” is dedicated to Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Powell and Monk. Other dedicatees range from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Billie Holiday, from Leonard Feather to Lena Horne. The concluding “Pisces” belongs very much to a tradition of art song and is sung convincingly by Agathe Peyrat in her only appearance.

While the original concert proved to be a disappointment for Williams, with inadequate rehearsal time seriously affecting the orchestra’s performance and requiring that many of the pieces be rendered as piano trio performances, this thoughtful reconstruction gives a convincing impression of Williams’ original conception and developed musical language.

I’ve previously written at some length on Badaroux and the Umlaut Big Band’s recording of Williams’ music on Mary’s Ideas, as well as her famous (or infamous) work with Cecil Taylor. It’s available here.