“Zodiac Suite” Album Review

Zodiac Suite by Mary Lou Williams, 1945

Album: Zodiac Suite

Artist: Mary Lou Williams

Year: 1945

Genre: Bebop

Grade: A+

The idea of marrying jazz music with classical was nothing new. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was an early forerunner, while Duke Ellington’s longform suites (Black, Brown and Beige, for example) reconfigured what was possible in a big band setting. However, the perfect synthesis wasn’t discovered until 1945, the year that pianist Mary Lou Williams recorded the Zodiac Suite.

Borrowing equally from bebop and Béla Bartók, Williams crafted a series of 12 mini-songs that were at once elegant, mysterious, rhythmic, modernist, complex and evocative. Taken as a whole, the Zodiac Suite is a beautiful blur of contrasting colors — jazz impressionism at its purest.

Up till 1945, jazz music had only been painted with bright colors and various shades of blue. Williams was among the first to utilize the whole palette, giving proper shine to darker hues. As a result, Zodiac expanded the emotional chromaticity of jazz itself.

Working in a trio setting, Williams’ scaled-back approach allows the music to breathe. Many of the tunes feature an ambient atmosphere (“Aries” and “Taurus,” for example), while others (“Gemini”) have a playful feel. The beautiful “Cancer” is delectably depressing. Then again, each piece remains ambiguous due to Williams’ unpredictable chord voicings and key changes. The listener’s expectations are kept in suspension, and we can never truly predict what direction the music will take.

It’s easy to call Zodiac Suite a masterpiece; it’s harder to state the reasons why. Each song reveals something different to each listener, which makes it forever elusive. What’s clear is that Zodiac possesses a perfect blend of abstraction, the kind that can only be found in similarly singular masterpieces — a proud lineage that includes Kind of Blue, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and A Love Supreme.

In other words, it stands among jazz music’s greatest works of art.

“Zodiac Suite” Album Review

Leave a Reply

Scroll to top