Aaron Diehl & the Knights: Zodiac Suite review – Mary Lou Williams’s joyous 1945 work takes flight

(Mack Avenue)
A jazz-classical portrait of the 12 star signs, the American jazz great’s suite finds its ideal realisation in Diehl and co’s lovingly performed rendition

Jazz history does not hear Mary Lou Williams’s name often enough, yet she was a prime mover and shaker in mid-century America: a piano prodigy, arranger for Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and confidante to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazzerati. Here, New York-based pianist Aaron Diehl and orchestral collective the Knights recreate Williams’s most celebrated work, Zodiac Suite, a portrait of the 12 astrological signs and a landmark in jazz-classical fusion. Mary Lou struggled to fully realise the piece – tapes of its 1945 debut performances were stolen – but it has remained popular, while crying out for the meticulous treatment supplied here by Diehl, a noted fusioneer.

Zodiac Suite is revealed as a joyous, enchanting creation. Each sign, with musician friends attached – Thelonious Monk for Libra, for example – marries orchestral motifs with jazz tropes. Scorpio mixes growling chords with sinuous clarinet and martial horns. Gemini (Mary Lou’s sign) combines rapid-fire orchestral chords with boogie woogie. The more leisurely Cancer has a tour-de-force tenor sax solo by guest star Nicole Glover. The moods crammed into each sign’s three minutes are a wonder, the playing – and on Pisces operatic singing – inspired. A triumph.

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