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Aaron Diehl brings an exacting passion to Mary Lou Williams' pioneering 'Zodiac Suite'

Maria Jarzyna

Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite took what you might call an elliptical path to the Kimmel Cultural Center, where the Aaron Diehl Trio and The Philadelphia Orchestra are performing the landmark piece this week. Composed between 1942 and 1945, the suite stands as one of the most celebrated early examples of jazz and classical music in active synthesis — and also, in celestial terms, one of the most star-crossed.

Williams composed Zodiac Suite in 12 movements, each corresponding to an astrological sign and bearing a dedication to musicians she knew. She recorded the work first with her piano trio, yielding a fine album on Asch Records in 1945.

Later that year, Willliams performed the suite with a chamber-jazz orchestra at The Town Hall, with more ambivalent results. She had been conferring with Milt Orent, a staff arranger at NBC, about writing for an orchestral scale. But the groundbreaking piece proved more challenging than expected. “This was Mary Lou’s first attempt at arranging for chamber ensemble — strings, double reeds, some brass — and she didn't have ample time to really workshop the orchestration,” Diehl reflects.

Portrait of Mary Lou Williams and Milt Orent, foreground, in Williams' New York apartment, ca. Aug. 1947. The others in the background are Jack Teagarden, Dixie Bailey, Hank Jones (at the piano), and Tadd Dameron.
William P. Gottlieb
/
Library of Congress
Portrait of Mary Lou Williams and Milt Orent, foreground, in Williams' New York apartment, ca. Aug. 1947. The others in the background are Jack Teagarden, Dixie Bailey, Hank Jones (at the piano), and Tadd Dameron.

A recording of the performance, released after Williams’ death, reveals this strain: she plays certain movements solo piano, or with only her trio. “The story goes that she was so frustrated with the concert,” says Diehl, “that she just walked out in a hurry and never played this particular version again.”

But Williams did keep Zodiac Suite in her musical orbit, performing it with a full orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1946, and recording a few movements with Dizzy Gillespie at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.

In a recent biography, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, Tammy Kernodle observes: “The Zodiac Suite, although continually in a state of recomposition as Mary rescored and reconceived the movements, reflected Mary’s expanding perspectives on jazz.”

Diehl, who at 37 is among the preeminent pianists of his generation, has long been interested in those expanding perspectives. He’s felt a deep connection to Mary Lou Williams since his days as a piano student at Juilliard, when he met Father Peter O’Brien — Williams’ longtime manager, and a steward of her legacy — at the Church of St. Joseph of the Holy Family in Harlem, where he played piano for masses.

“During the pandemic, I was just going through some things, and I realized that this version of the Zodiac had been published,” Diehl explains, referring to Williams’ original orchestrations. “It was published in about 2011, and I had never heard about it.” At the time, he recalls, classical institutions were pivoting to livestreams in the absence of in-person concerts. One such institution, the New York Philharmonic, agreed to present Diehl’s performance of the piece. “It was their first streaming concert during that whole lockdown period,” he says. “We didn’t do the whole suite. But we did four movements, with Tito Muñoz, who's a great young conductor.”

The process was more involved than simply dusting off and performing a historic score. “Similar to Mary Lou’s situation, there wasn't a lot of time,” Diehl recalls. “And I noticed that even in the published parts, quite honestly, there were a lot of mistakes and copying errors.” Spot-checking the score against Williams’ trio recording, he made a series of adjustments with the composer’s original intentions in mind.

After the NY Phil livestream, a handful of classical orchestras expressed their interest in programming Zodiac Suite. One of them, The Knights, led by brothers Eric and Colin Jacobsen, spent the better part of 2021 working with Diehl on the piece — a rare luxury of the sort that Williams never had. “We put all kinds of blood, sweat, and tears to making that piece sound good,” Diehl explains. “Maybe I’d hear something, or Eric would point something out, and then we would try to revise it. We probably put 40, 50 hours of work into that piece.” The culmination was a studio album, likely to see release this fall.

Portrait of Mary Lou Williams, New York, N.Y., ca. 1946
William P. Gottlieb
/
Library of Congress
Portrait of Mary Lou Williams, New York, N.Y., ca. 1946

The recording captures the luster and sweep of Williams’ orchestration, which recalls a vision of mid-century American modernism. Jazz harmony and rhythm flow through the movements like a river, with the classical elements integrated more seamlessly than on any prior recording of the piece.

You hear this clearly on “Virgo” — a movement that celebrates the bounce of Kansas City swing, and one that resonates especially with Diehl, whose birthday falls on the Virgo / Libra cusp. “I have a theory that musicians in symphonic orchestras actually would have been more able to play idiomatically in that tradition,” he says, referring to the culture of the postwar era. “Because it was still a part of the popular vernacular, to some degree.”

Diehl’s deep study of the score yielded a few discoveries — as on “Gemini,” one of the suite’s most locomotive movements. “In the original concert recording, she just plays boogie-woogie piano, you know?” he says. “But in the orchestral version, she has two different things going on.” The rhythm section plays a C-major blues — “but in the second chorus, especially in the clarinet, you have these upper extensions going on in the backgrounds, and it sounds like it’s clashing.” Thinking at first that this was the result of a copying error, Diehl was helped toward an epiphany. “Someone actually told me: ‘Gemini’s two different sides, right?’ So I realized the clashing is intentional. It took me a while to figure that out.”

For his concerts with The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Cristian Măcelaru, Diehl has secured the same resourceful soloists as on the new album. So the clarinet solo on “Gemini” will be performed by Evan Christopher, and the tenor saxophone essay on cancer (famously played at Town Hall by Ben Webster) will be expertly handled by Nicole Glover. The trumpet soloist is Brandon Lee, and the vocalist who brings the suite to a close is mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran. Diehl will lead his piano trio, with David Wong on bass and Aaron Kimmel on drums.

The Aaron Diehl Trio, with David Wong, bass, and Aaron Kimmel, drums.
Corrado Serra
The Aaron Diehl Trio, with David Wong, bass, and Aaron Kimmel, drums.

The concert, like the album, will help burnish the posthumous legacy of Williams — a Taurus, for what it’s worth, and a figure revered by musical peers in her time but never met with grand commercial success. Earlier this month, in the New York Times “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love” series, Giovanni Russonello warmly appraised her as “a Mount Rushmore figure in jazz, possibly the greatest multiplier of openness and mastery the music has yet known.”

For Diehl, carrying out the unfinished business of Zodiac Suite has been not only a labor of love but also a lesson. “I’ve learned a lot from doing this in terms of, you know, how you have to be persistent about something that you really believe in and love,” he says. “And it’s very rewarding to see.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra presents A Celestial Odyssey, featuring Zodiac Suite and Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, on Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.