Aaron Diehl Revives Mary Lou Williams
I’ve been quietly obsessed with pianist Aaron Diehl for a few years now. I first noticed him on singer Cécile McLorin Salvant’s 2017 double CD Dreams And Daggers, where his somewhat old-timey style was ideally suited to the songs she had chosen and arranged into a long suite with narrative flow and dark irony. And he got plenty of space in the spotlight; he wasn’t just there to support her vocals. (Check him out on “Devil May Care,” streaming further down.) But that was their third album together, and he also had four records out as a leader — 2009’s Live At Caramoor and 2010’s Live At The Players, independent releases which I’ve never been able to track down, and 2013’s The Bespoke Man’s Narrative and 2015’s Space Time Continuum on Mack Avenue. On Bespoke, he combined original compositions with versions of tunes by Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson…and an arrangement of the third movement of Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.
By his third Mack Avenue album, 2020’s The Vagabond, Diehl was showing even more clearly that he had one foot in classical and the other in jazz. The album kicked off with seven original pieces, and ended with four surprising interpretations: March, from Sergei Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces For Piano; Sir Roland Hanna’s “A Story Often Told, Seldom Heard”; Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis’s “Milano”; and Philip Glass’s “Etude No. 16.” Two of these are chamber music, though Diehl and his rhythm section (bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Gregory Hutchinson) transform the Prokofiev piece into a free-swinging piece of jazz. The other two could be filed under “chamber jazz,” as they have a restrained but at times breathtaking beauty, particularly “Milano.” The repetitive, cellular melody of the Glass piece, meanwhile, is balanced by a subtly shifting drum pattern that gives it a more ominous energy than it would otherwise contain.
Diehl has a new album out, and it’s a fascinating departure from his previous work, but at the same time it’s something only he would have chosen to even attempt. He’s recorded a version of pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite with the chamber orchestra the Knights. Williams wrote the suite, which runs a little less than 40 minutes, in the 1940s, consciously blending jazz with elements and ideas from modern classical in a manner that was extremely advanced for the time. It consisted of 12 pieces, one for each sign of the zodiac and dedicated to or inspired by musician friends and peers born under various signs, and was originally composed for solo piano, piano/bass duo, and trio. She later expanded it into an orchestral suite, inspired by Duke Ellington but also by composers like Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky. The large ensemble versions were played once each — a chamber ensemble at Town Hall on New Year’s Eve 1945, and a full orchestra at Carnegie Hall in June 1946. Both concerts were recorded, but the orchestral version’s tapes disappeared and were likely stolen.
“I first was acquainted with Mary Lou Williams when I went to Juilliard, around 2003…and they had a Mary Lou Williams concert,” Diehl recalls. “I had never heard of her before, to be quite honest. She really wasn’t on my radar like Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk or some of the more, I’d say, household names, or at least household names to me.” At the concert, he connected with Father Peter O’Brien, a Jesuit priest who had also been Williams’ manager from the early 1960s until her death in 1981. Several years later, Diehl was working as music director of St. Joseph of the Holy Family, a Catholic church in Harlem, when O’Brien visited as a guest. “Father O’Brien recognized me and he said, ‘I remember you from Juilliard. And I don’t know if you know this, but Mary Lou Williams wrote some sacred music for the Catholic liturgy. Would you be interested in using it in the masses?'” Diehl did end up playing some of Williams’ music at St. Joseph, including Mass For The Lenten Season, Mary Lou’s Mass, and Mass For Peace, all of which were liturgical music composed using jazz vernacular.
“So over the pandemic, I had discovered the Zodiac Suite,” he continues. “Of course, I knew the suite itself and its original iteration, a trio and some of the movements were solo piano…and I was just curious if there was published music that existed [of the chamber ensemble version] and I ended up finding the music. And unfortunately, you know, it was published, but a lot of the parts and the score and everything, there were a lot of errors. There were issues with, I think, just the editing. And so one of the projects that I wanted to take on during the pandemic [was] seeing if this piece could be resurrected. I mean, she had a very kind of tumultuous relationship with this particular version, because the premiere did not go as stellar as it maybe could have if the ensemble had more preparation time and more rehearsal. And so, if you listen to the recording, some of the movements Mary Lou Williams just covered on piano by herself and didn’t even have the ensemble play, including ‘Aquarius.'”
His first public attempt at working on the Zodiac Suite came with the New York Philharmonic and guest conductor Tito Muñoz in March 2021; they performed four movements as part of a program of American music, which was streamed online. But he wanted to do the whole thing, so he teamed up with the Knights, and they gradually worked it up, analyzing and repairing the score and performing it here and there. Finally, in May 2022, they recorded the full suite. “So it’s really been a long, let’s say, two-year journey or so, probably two-and-a-half-year journey from when I decided to take this on as a project until this release,” he says.
Diehl wants to be very clear that this is not a re-orchestration of the piece. “Mary Lou Williams was the arranger and orchestrator. That’s very important to understand, because this was something that was the first time that she had orchestrated for an ensemble like this, a chamber orchestra…she worked with a friend of hers, Milton Orent, who was a staff arranger at NBC, and he had helped guide her a bit through, you know, the rules of orchestration and all that. And then I think my work came in partly — there were copying errors that still were existent in the published version that existed. And right now I’m actually working with the estate and with the publisher and the Mary Lou Williams Foundation to get a clean version, if you will. But as it stands now, there are still matters of articulation and in how things are balanced in the sections, you know, dynamics and some of these things, you know, we can never be fully sure what Mary Lou Williams intended. But definitely the brunt of the work is what she did with the orchestration. And so I think right now the idea is just to figure out how to tweak some things here and there to really give it the kind of finesse that the music deserves for sure. And she never had time to really work out as much as she probably wanted to.”
The connection between Diehl and Williams goes beyond the music itself. Williams converted to Catholicism in the 1950s, and Diehl, who’s originally from Ohio, grew up Catholic. There are a lot of Black Catholics, but it’s not what most people think of when they hear the phrase “the Black church.” He says, “I grew up in a predominantly Black Catholic church; my grandmother and my grandfather on my mom’s side, they went every Sunday. My mom also went as well. My dad, who was a funeral director, I think he grew up AME [African Methodist Episcopal Church] but he didn’t go to church with us necessarily. But my mom and my grandparents did. And my grandfather sang in the choir. I mean, that was one of the first experiences that I had in really hearing music. Certainly sacred music. And for me, it wasn’t anything unusual, you know, to have sort of certain, quote unquote, Black cultural experiences within the Catholic Church, because that’s just the kind of church that I grew up in. I didn’t recognize sort of these differentiators between, like, the Protestant, specifically Baptist church or Pentecostal COGIC [Church of God in Christ] or any of this kind of Protestant religion. I didn’t recognize that was like a huge difference until I got a bit older. So, you know, we would play Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass, which was a kind of a common Black Catholic mass setting in the ’80s and ’90s, I suppose. Grayson Brown was another prominent black Catholic composer, he wrote liturgical settings for the Mass. So for me, when I came across Mary Lou Williams, I really found her fascinating because she wrote music, which even growing up in the Catholic Church, you know, playing jazz in the church, that wasn’t really something that she did. And so the fact that she wrote mass settings in the jazz vernacular, I thought that was incredibly fascinating.”
Diehl came to a lot of fans’ attention thanks to his work with Cécile McLorin Salvant, which more or less ended after Dreams And Daggers, though he’s on a few tracks on her 2022 album Ghost Song. “She has a real gift for making associations that many people just don’t see and don’t connect,” he says. “And I think that’s so important for any of us to be able to do — some have a better use of that skill set than others. But she is really a prime example of someone who understands how to take seemingly disparate subject matter elements and find ways of connecting them and relating them to each other. And that’s what’s always fascinating about her in addition to her wonderful artistry or her singing, [is] how she makes connections. And that’s so important.” He takes pains to point out that while he got in some killer solos on her records, the vision was entirely hers. “She always did the sequencing for her sets. I mean, that wasn’t really something that I even chimed in on, because she just had such a keen awareness of that and understanding of storytelling. You know, she is an exemplary raconteur. She knows how to tell a story.”
Lately, Diehl has been moving in a direction that few would have predicted. He’s joined a trio led by drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey and made two studio albums — 2022’s Mesmerism and 2023’s Continuing — and a triple live disc, The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism, with guest alto saxophonist Greg Osby. The music they perform on the two studio albums consists of jazz standards and compositions by Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal, and Muhal Richard Abrams, among others, but they stretch them out and really let the melodies breathe. On the live set, when they add tunes like Ornette Coleman’s “Mob Job” and Miles Davis’s “Solar” (based on a tune by guitarist Chuck Wayne) to their repertoire, the music becomes faster, more aggressive and abstract, in some ways reminiscent of the Davis quintet’s 1965 Plugged Nickel recordings, when the band — without telling their boss — decided to subvert every conventional musical impulse and play what drummer Tony Williams called “anti-music.” (The story appears in the brilliant three-part Wayne Shorter documentary Zero Gravity, which is streaming on Amazon Prime, and you should check out The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel 1965 on streaming services — even though they’re playing standard tunes, it’s some of the most avant-garde music Miles Davis ever released, almost free jazz at times.)
Diehl and Sorey connected during the pandemic, after he’d seen the drummer, along with pianist Vicky Chow and bassist Shanir Blumenkranz, play a concert of John Zorn compositions at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. “I was doing a series of videos for the Phillips Collection — sort of interviews, if you will. One was with Cécile and another one was with photographer Frank Stewart. And then the last one was with Tyshawn Sorey. And we talked about our musical upbringings and influences…and my interest in, you know, sort of the European canon, especially the music of Bach, but also being into James P. Johnson and Ellington and someone like him being into Stockhausen as well as Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams. I think both of us, we don’t necessarily see these boundaries. And in music, even though there are, you know, established musical languages, we don’t see them as not able to be connected. Again, the connections, how do you make the connections? And he’s someone who is like Cécile, in that he knows how to make connections…between purely improvised music and purely compositional music. They’re all one and the same in the hands of a musician like him.”
Mesmerism was recorded with very little preparation, according to Diehl. “We had a rehearsal at my apartment the day before the session, and I was super nervous because I just didn’t know what he wanted, and he was very quick with spitting out the arrangements and nothing was written. It was all just, you know, him dictating. ‘We’re going to play it in this key and then we’re going to modulate to this key,’ and so on and so forth. So he could tell that I was someone that kind of liked to have things prepared in advance. And I think he purposefully didn’t do that. Because he wanted to see the kind of results that he got from it.”
The urge to keep things open-ended, particularly since Sorey is much more of an exploratory drummer than a straightforward timekeeper, makes their collaboration a continual challenge, which is audible in every moment of Off-Off Broadway. “I have to be an acute listener and understand that, you know, nothing can be predicted,” Diehl says. “I just have to really be in the present and and trust myself that where I’m going, where he’s taking me, is also that I’m there with him or vice versa. There’s a lot of trust that’s developed.”
It’s very interesting to contrast these two men, each of whom explores territory that’s part jazz, part classical, and in many ways undefinable, but who seem to arrive in that blurry middle zone from opposite directions. “I think where the interest lies is not in the specifics of which language we’re drawing from, but it’s how we connect things,” Diehl says. “Where are connections? And someone like Tyshawn, again, whether you’re talking about [Morton] Feldman or talking about Elvin Jones, it’s how he’s able to incorporate all of the things that he loves into his unique approach and sound. And I suppose that, you know, ultimately the goal for me is to do that with what I do.” Whether he’s accompanying a singer on a suite of obscure show tunes, stretching standards past the 20-minute mark, making Philip Glass swing, or reviving Mary Lou Williams’ orchestral jazz compositions, Aaron Diehl finds ways to make the music he plays reflect his own questing, curious spirit. Which is what keeps me coming back to his catalog, and it may do the same for you.
Khalab - "Drone Ra"
Italian DJ/producer Khalab combines electronic music with jazz and African sounds in a quite compelling manner. His 2015 album Khalab & Baba was a fantastic collaboration with Malian percussionist and singer Baba Sissoko, and his 2018 release Black Noise 2084 featured guest appearances from UK jazz artists Shabaka Hutchings, Moses Boyd, and Tamar Osborn. Osborn, poet Joshua Idehen (who’s also worked with Hutchings), Tenderlonious, and Emanative are among the guests on Khalab’s latest disc, Layers. The opening track, “Drone Ra,” features Yazz Ahmed on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Alessia Obino on vocals, singing and reciting mantra-like lyrics that bring to mind Sun Ra or Idris Ackamoor, as waves of synth and gentle drums hum and pulse around them. (From Layers, out now via Hyperjazz.)
Gard Nilssen's Supersonic Orchestra - "Boogie Stop Tøffel"
Drummer Gard Nilssen is a very, very busy guy; I had to decide which of three albums he plays on to include in this month’s column. The others were the latest from Polish saxophonist Maciej Obara, and hard-driving jazz-rock trio Bushman’s Revenge. They’re both really good, in very different ways, but Supersonic Orchestra is his own thing, and it’s something very special indeed. Seventeen members strong, the SO features seven saxophonists, two trumpet players, two trombone players, three bassists, and three drummers, all among the best of the current generation of Scandinavian jazz players. (Obara’s here, too.) All the music is original, written by Nilssen and his longtime partner in the Acoustic Unity band, saxophonist André Roligheten. The pieces blend together, too, turning this 66-minute recording from a 2022 concert in the Netherlands into a continuous suite, but “Boogie Stop Tøffel” is a hard-swinging, even convulsive blues romp with plenty of space for screaming sax. (From Family, out now via We Jazz.)
Maurice Louca - "Trembler"
Egyptian guitarist/composer Maurice Louca formed Elephantine in 2017, recording an album of the same name with a group of musicians who had never played together before. Afterward, some of them stuck together, and now we’ve got a new album, Moonshine, which features five of the players from the debut (not including Louca himself), plus new members Rosa Brunell on bass and Els Vandeweyer on vibes. The first half is taken up with the three-part, 19-minute title suite; “Trembler” is the first track on the album’s second side. It features a hypnotic horn melody that wavers like a mirage, set to a big double-drum beat; reeds sound like wolves howling at the moon, and when the tuba comes pumping in your heart rate will double. And that bizarro ’70s synth solo, straight from some forgotten prog album? Fucking hell. (From Moonshine, out now via Northern Spy.)
Darius Jones - "Zubot"
Alto saxophonist and composer Darius Jones worked on the four-movement fLuXkit Vancouver (its suite but sacred) beginning in 2019 and finally recorded it in 2022. A fluxkit is a creation of the Fluxus art movement — it’s a box containing random everyday objects and artworks, and by interacting with it, in whatever way they choose, the person who opens it experiences an “art event.” Listening to the music on this album I’m unclear what that idea has to do with the sounds, because they’re all made with conventional instruments played in a relatively conventional (albeit highly skilled) manner, and there’s a consistent, traditional logic to the music. It takes inspiration from blues and jazz and chamber music and swirls it all together in a way that reminds me of Ornette Coleman’s writing for strings from the early ’60s, but also of Duke Ellington. The instrumentation is Jones on alto, Gerald Cleaver on drums, and violinists Jesse and Josh Zubot, cellist Peggy Lee, and bassist James Meger, and all their voices blend together beautifully, on the uptempo “Zubot” in particular. (From fLuXkit Vancouver (its suite but sacred), out 9/29 via Northern Spy/We Jazz.)
Mark Turner - "Terminus"
Mark Turner should be much better known. He’s an absolutely brilliant saxophonist, with a deep catalog of intriguing compositions and thrilling collaborations. I’ve heard him in all sorts of contexts, and he’s never seemed out of place in any of them but at the same time he’s never sounded like anyone but himself. And he’s a hero to younger players, a big influence on a whole generation of saxophonists who don’t necessarily want to blow the house down but who want to leave you thinking about what you just heard. He’s perfectly matched, on this double live CD, with trumpeter Jason Palmer, who’s in almost the same position in terms of status within the jazz world — another incredibly skilled player with really creative ideas (he recorded an entire album of Minnie Riperton tunes!) who deserves more attention than he gets from the broader public. “Terminus” is nearly 13 minutes long, a simmering blues that speeds up just a little, then settles back into its patient groove, and Turner, Palmer, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Jonathan Pinson never let the listener’s attention flag. The long unison melodies make it seem almost like a through-composed composition, but then the horns take off on solo flights, swooping through the sky like eagles on the hunt. (From Live At The Village Vanguard, out now via Giant Step Arts.)
Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids - "Thank You God"
Saxophonist Idris Ackamoor has been leading the Pyramids since the early 1970s, when he was inspired by studying with Cecil Taylor at Antioch College in Ohio. They released four albums before breaking up toward the end of that decade, then reunited more than 40 years later after their back catalog was discovered by cratediggers. In addition to his own sax, organ, and keytar, the current lineup features Margaux Simmons on flute, Sandra Poindexter on violin, and Bobby Cobb on guitar, with production by drummer Malcolm Catto of the Heliocentrics and other projects. Their music has always been a unique blend of free jazz, traditional African rhythms and melodies (they lived, worked and studied in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, Morocco and Ethiopia early on), and funk, with a strong element of Sun Ra-esque Afrofuturism. Some tracks on Afro Futuristic Dreams also have a heavy reggae influence, a newer element in the group’s sound but a welcome one. “Thank You God” is a 13-minute track with somewhat hippie-ish, come-join-our-cult lyrics (“We are a family/ Spinning through the galaxy/ Sailing on Spaceship Earth/ Sharing collective destiny”) and lengthy, Pharoah Sanders-ish sax solos from Ackamoor, all laid over a vamping West African groove showcasing Cobb’s guitar. (From Afro Futuristic Dreams, out 9/22 via Strut.)
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - "Dymaxion"
I’ve been internet friends with composer Darcy James Argue for close to 20 years, and I’ve been listening to his ultra-adventurous big band, the Secret Society, since their debut album, Infernal Machines, came out in 2009. Dynamic Maximum Tension, the group’s fourth release, is their first in seven years, following 2016’s Real Enemies. What he does with large ensembles — on this record, the Secret Society includes five trumpets, four trombones, five wind instruments (saxophones and/or flutes), electric guitar, piano, bass, and drums — is simply some of the most exciting music being made right now. The pieces throb and roar, ebb and flow, swing and rock.
“Dymaxion” has been in the Secret Society’s book for a long time; there’s a live recording from 2011 on Argue’s Bandcamp page. But this version, which is a showcase for an extended solo by baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi, is both high-energy and precisely arranged. Composing music in this way is something I can’t even comprehend. My brain doesn’t work like that. Some big bands just riff; the music pulses and the drummer gives it the illusion of forward movement. But Argue’s music shifts and whirls like an entire galaxy in orbit around itself, and it’s breathtaking to listen to. I love this record. (From Dynamic Maximum Tension, out now via Nonesuch.)
James Brandon Lewis - "Wade In The Water"
Back in 2021, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis put together a killer band he dubbed the Red Lily Quintet: Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Chris Hoffman on cello, William Parker on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums. Their debut album, Jesup Wagon, was an astonishing blend of free jazz and folk music, somewhat in the spirit of Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman. Thematically, it was a tribute to George Washington Carver, and this follow-up is equally anchored in the life and work of a historical personage, in this case legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Most of the tracks are reworkings of songs associated with Jackson, transformed through the interplay of these master musicians into something far-reaching and wide-ranging, but still anchored to the earth. “Wade In The Water” is stretched almost to its conceptual breaking point, stating the melody as a duet for the horns over a loping beat, before Lewis takes an introspective solo that’s followed by an extended journey from Parker, on which the other members comment obliquely here and there. (From For Mahalia, With Love, out now via Tao Forms.)
Irreversible Entanglements - "Our Land Back"
Irreversible Entanglements have come a long way since the members — saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquilles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart, drummer Tcheser Holmes, and vocalist/electronic musician Camae Ayewa — joined forces in 2015. After three albums on Chicago indie label International Anthem, they’re now signed to Impulse!, and their latest record was tracked in part at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studio in New Jersey.
Their message has evolved, too; while they started out as a vehicle for revolutionary fire and fury, Protect Your Light offers tributes to fallen friends, mantras for creating sustainable and welcoming communities, and tributes to universal love. The music now includes Caribbean parade rhythms, dub effects, and special guests on piano, cello and vocals. “Our Land Back” proves that they haven’t lost their edge, though, as the horns and Janice A. Lowe’s desolate piano waver mournfully and Ayewa sneers, “Clueless outdated on sale and made of plastic/ Well, at least we’ve been to the moon,” a line worthy of the late Gil Scott-Heron. (From Protect Your Light, out now via Impulse!)
Matana Roberts - "a(way) is not an option"
Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin series is one of the great works of art of the 21st century. Rooted in deep research into their own family history, it is also a history of America and how it has treated Black people for hundreds of years. It is a long, often harrowing narrative of trauma and pain, but it also surges with joy, sometimes found in acts of open defiance and other times in private moments away from the sight of others.
Each volume sounds radically different from the others. The first was recorded with a largish ensemble that defied categorization, featuring multiple horns as well as vibes, duduk, musical saw and strings; the second was recorded with a jazz ensemble (alto sax, trumpet, piano, bass, drums) but also utilized operatic male vocals; the third was a solo disc on which they played every instrument and layered in field recordings; and the fourth featured multiple guitars, trombone, vibes, bass, drums, and several female singers. But they all flow together as manifestations of a single massive creative impulse, rigorous in its construction and yet propelled/inspired by raw emotion.
The fifth volume tells the story of a relative of Roberts’ who died in the 1920s following an illegal abortion. Roberts has combined family stories with their own research and has created a harrowing piece of spoken-word narrative art, some of it possibly from letters or diaries and other parts simply written in the voice of their long-lost relative. Some textual through-lines run through the piece; Roberts chants over and over, “My name is your name/ Our name is their name,” and as the protagonist tells her story, it becomes disturbingly clear how much she has in common with present-day women, and therefore how little has changed.
As the story progresses, we come to care deeply about this woman, and it’s almost like watching a horror movie, the way circumstances close in around her and all we can do is observe as she struggles to get out of the trap the world has constructed for her. But it’s not just a narrative; it’s a beautiful piece of music, performed by a large group of collaborators including punk/jazz drummer Mike Pride, pianist Cory Smythe, violinist Mazz Swift, TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone on synth, alto saxophonist Darius Jones, and others. “a(way) is not an option” is the climax of the story, and it’s a tough thing to listen to, but Roberts delivers the story in a voice filled with love and even humor, which doesn’t take away any of its impact. This is a heartbreaking record, but it’s also deeply inspiring, a tale of thwarted but nevertheless undeniable resilience and determination. (From Coin Coin Chapter Five: In The Garden, out 9/29 via Constellation.)