Building on a long track record of scholarship and interpretive artistry focused on the great Mary Lou Williams, vibraphonist and composer Cecilia Smith releases Volume 1: Small Ensemble Repertoire, the new album from her NEA American Masterpiece Award-winning Mary Lou Williams Resurgence Project. Through countless hours of immersion in the Williams archive at the Institute for Jazz Studies, and direct access to manuscripts and scores from Williams’ former manager Father Peter O’Brien, Smith and her top-tier bandmates put their unique stamp on music either composed by Williams, composed in honour of her, or arranged and recorded by Williams during her lifetime. Among the timeless gems on Volume 1: Small Ensemble Repertoire is Williams’ previously unrecorded ‘Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone’, sung by the acclaimed Carla Cook.
Smith leads off with her original ‘Sketch One – Truth Be Told’, incorporating a sequence of motifs drawn from Mary Lou’s pieces ‘Nicole’, ‘Waltz Boogie’ and ‘Truth’ (a.k.a. ‘Scratchin’ in the Gravel’). The fourth and final motif, commonly identified with Thelonious Monk’s ‘Rhythm-a-ning’, is in fact a riff from the killer shout chorus in Mary Lou’s ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’ (1936) – just one of Williams’ innovative contributions to the band book of Andy Kirk’s 12 Clouds of Joy. Now I would love to be able to say that I identified all those references but I would be lying, they came from the album’s liner notes. However, many of the riffs were familiar and the way they are incorporated into the number sounds fantastic, giving a fresh outlook on a familiarity of sorts.
‘What’s Your Story Morning Glory’ is a Mary Lou Williams composition that blends the piano of Lafayette Harris Jr. with the organ playing of Carlton Holmes, a blend that perfectly compliments the Carla Cook vocal. The vibe sound from Smith is clean, crisp and relaxed with the energy of the number coming through from the vocals. ‘Miss D.D. (Composed For Doris Duke)’ is another Mary Lou Williams written number with a great rhythm section; terrific ostinato from bass player Kenny Davis. This is a more uptempo number but the vibes still ring crisp and clean and the piano accompaniment and solo from Holmes is a delight – nothing feels hurried, just a band of musicians enjoying what they are playing.
‘Body and Soul’ is a well covered standard and played here as a piano/vibes duet (Harris Jr./Smith) and I have to applaud Cecilia Smith here for her arrangement. The result is a beautiful ballad with nowhere to hide and nothing to hide. The standard of musicianship is exceptional and just when you thought there was nothing new to bring to this Jimmy Green classic this comes along: stunning! ‘Sketch 3 – 100 Years Of MLW.’ is a delightful relaxed swinging number with the Hammond B3 of Carlton Holmes underpinning the vibraphone tone giving the tune a very nice depth of sound. ‘Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone’ gives us more of Carla Cook’s vocals on this that would not sound out of place in a 40s jazz club.
W.C. Handy’s ‘St Louis Blues’ is another oft covered standard but again Cecilia Smith’s arrangement elevates this cover to something quite special in another duo setting with Harris Jr. who adds some nice touches of his own that made me smile. This is a fantastic open blues played at a pedestrian pace where every distinct note has space to be heard. The title of track eight, ‘Spiritual 2 – Who Was Mary Lou Williams (Spoken Word)’, contains all the information you need to know. It is the story of Mary Lou Williams, it is spiritual in form, and the words (by scholar and liner note author Dr. Tammy Kernodle) are spoken and worth listening to.
‘It’s A Grand Night For Swinging’ is a mid-tempo soulful number written by Dr. Billy Taylor with Holmes at the piano and Harris Jr. behind the Hammond B3. The piano/organ/vibes blend is sublime with excellent support from Davis and Savage on bass and drums respectively. At a little under nine minutes this track gives the musicians an opportunity to stretch out a little more on this very good straight-ahead jazz number. The album finishes with a second slightly extended version of ‘Miss D.D’, which sounds even better on the repeat. Kenny Davis on bass is terrific, as is Harris Jr on the Hammond B3. There is a noticeable difference between this live version and the studio version heard on track three, a touch more energy, particularly in the drum solo.
Cecilia Smith has produced a compelling album in tribute to Mary Lou Williams. The musicianship across the release is first-class. The running order is well-balanced with the vocal and spoken word tracks being well placed. The arrangements of the covers are very good – the ‘St Louis Blues’ and ‘Body and Soul’ being stellar examples – and at times it feels like the musicians involved are playing for their own entertainment not wider recognition, which might be part of the reason the come across so well. On top of her compositional and arranging skills, Cecilia Smith is also a very good vibes player who lets the resonant notes breath as they weave and blend with the notes of the piano or Hammond B3 or both.
Mary Lou Williams Resurgence Project Volume 1: Small Ensemble Repertoire is available from innova Recordings (the house label of the American Composers Forum) from May 5th and will be on my personal playlist for some time to come!
Musicians: Cecilia Smith – vibraphone; Lafayette Harris Jr. – piano (tracks 2, 4, 7 & 8) | Hammond B-3 organ (tracks 1, 9 & 10); Carlton Holmes – piano (tracks 1, 3, 9 & 10) | Hammond B-3 organ (tracks 2, 5, 8); Kenny Davis – acoustic bass; Ron Savage – drums; Carla Cook – vocalist (tracks 2 & 6); Sheila Anderson – voice-over (On Air Host WBGO JAZZ 88) (track 8).
Tracklist: 1. Sketch 1 – Truth Be Told For MLW. 2. What’s Your Story Morning Glory. 3. Miss D.D. (Composed For Doris Duke). 4. Body And Soul. 5. Sketch 3 – 100 Years Of MLW. 6. Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone. 7. St. Louis Blues. 8. Spiritual 2 – Who Was Mary Lou Williams (Spoken Word). 9. It’s A Grand Night For Swinging. 10. Miss D. D. (version 2).