That Old-Time Religion—Plenty of Piano, but No Vaudeville


Mary Lou Williams’s “St. Martin de Porres,” recorded soon after the 1962 canonization of “the patron saint of the broom,” a 17th-century Peruvian priest who was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed black slave, suffers by comparison to Ellington’s near-contemporaneous Sacred Concerts, as do three other Williams choral pieces on Black Saint of the Andes. Despite the role of the black church in both the civil rights movement and soul jazz, there was something almost quaint about the notion of a devout Christian (a Roman Catholic, in Williams’s case) jazz musician in an era when so many were embracing Islam and Eastern mysticism. With Ellington, it hardly mattered. He was a showman as well as a Christian, and his idea of worship was vaudeville right down to the tap dancers. Williams’s harmonically ambitious scores for mixed choir encourage no such suspension of disbelief; whether because she lacked experience writing for voices or because the singers frequently sound so damn white, these performances fail to stir the soul. (On two, she and the choirs settle for moving the body, and Williams, Budd Johnson, and Grant Green get to wail.) Nevertheless, this is an essential reissue for the nine trio performances (and one solo) on which we hear a pianist who could have rested on her swing-era laurels investigating such modernist touchstones as Monk’s skipping intervals, Horace Silver’s stabbing bass vamps, and Ahmad Jamal’s syncopated ostinatos—and nimbly making them her own. Listening to Williams move from major to minor and back again with implacable logic on “A Fungus Among Us,” you can understand why some folks thought she should get together with Cecil Taylor. But that’s another story.