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JAZZ REVIEW

Honoring the spirit of Mary Lou Williams

March 07, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Mary Lou Williams' place in the jazz pantheon has more often been honored in principle rather than performance. Highly regarded as a pianist and as a pioneering female instrumentalist in a distinctly male-oriented profession, more than as a composer, she nonetheless remains an elusive figure, even to many dedicated jazz listeners.

So the Los Angeles Master Chorale and music director Grant Gershon can be congratulated for Sunday's production of "Shout: The Music of Mary Lou Williams" at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Primarily devoted to music from "Music for Peace" ("Mary Lou's Mass," 1970), the program gathered an impressive array of talent, including the chorale, the Luckman Jazz Orchestra, singers Carmen Lundy and Cedric Berry, and the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers.

The combining of jazz with spiritual texts had a spike of popularity from the late '50s into the '70s, most visibly with Duke Ellington's spiritual works. But Williams, who died in 1981, was successful in her ability to retain the visceral appeal of jazz's secular aspects within a temperate spiritual environment.

Although most selections were from the Mass, they were sequenced individually, frequently with added arrangements by pianist Lanny Hartley and Lundy for the LJO and the chorale. The results tended to minimize the sacred, while allowing certain sections -- Lundy's dramatic rendering of "Lazarus," Berry's soaring rendition of "The Lord Says," the instrumental groove of "The Apostles' Creed" -- to stand on their own. And the inclusion of "St. Martin De Porres" from Williams' 1963 sacred work, "Black Christ of the Andes," provided a rich, harmonic tapestry for the chorale's lush vocal sounds.

Much of the rhythmic drive for the program was provided by the LJO's rhythm team -- pianist Hartley, drummer Harold Mason, bassist Jeffery Littleton and percussionist Alberto Salas. Aside from a few stirring solos, the LJO played a largely supportive role.

The McNeil Singers offered spirituals to open the program's second half. They generated irresistible rhythmic propulsion to energize rich timbres and the stratospheric solos of Yolanda West and Caroline McKenzie.

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