Mary Lou Williams has not yet been properly discovered by the generations of musicians that came after her. Her musicality is certainly appreciated among cognoscenti; she may be studied in conservatoires as part of the historical continuum of music – to what extent and taught by whom may be something that is up for debate – and there is no doubt that she is revered in many ways by pianists from Thelonious Monk to Cecil Taylor. But she was much more than just a pianist. In fact her advanced musical – melodic, harmonic and rhythmic – as well as her stature as a composer [her worldview, much like that of Mr Monk of whom she was a supporter before anyone else knew what he was up to], may take years to comprehend and certainly master. In that respect Miss Williams cuts a figure much like Charlie Parker.
Accordingly, many musicians have paid homage to Miss Williams and her music, so this recording by Frank Carlberg and Gabriel José Bolaños is certainly not the first, nor will it remain so. The young pianist Chris Pattishall has recently also released Zodiac, his take on Miss Williams’ epic suite and a few years ago pianist Teri Parker, produced – and performed a whole concert dedicated to interpretations of Miss Williams’ music [and that of Geri Allen] with in Toronto with alto saxophonist Allison Au, trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy, bassist Lauren Falls and drummer Sarah Thawer, an all-women power-ensemble Free Spirits. However, Mr Carlberg and Mr Bolaños’ Charity and Love is a profoundly meditative, ethereally beautiful impression of Mary Lou Williams and her music, and it is a recital unlike anything you may have heard before.
This is a wonderful, quite spectral studio performance and lends itself to much hyperbole; so one should try and restrain oneself. But that kind of adulation might reveal itself in other ways. Conceptually this recording suggests that Mr Carlberg’s artistic dreamscape follows in a continuous line from where his Monk Dreams, Hallucinations and Nightmares left off – in line with enunciating his own worldview of music’s continuum perhaps. It is also a proverbial nod to ghost-trance music, a kind of Spectralist session not unlike one by Gérard Grisey. I am not sure if Mr Carlberg intended it to be so, but the shards of intense vocal babbling – like Pentecostals “speaking in tongues” – which melds in with the scratchy sound of the computer and shimmering radiance of the piano keys evokes, in spectacular fashion, Miss Williams’ spiritual awakening that is known to have turned her life around.
A short sequence featuring Miss Williams’ voice is at the heart of “Soul and Jazz”, which serves to underline her own worldview. The manipulation of the voice segment is worked upon until some kind of musical splintering is rightfully achieved, with Mr Carlberg weaving and bopping in and out of the final echo of Miss Williams’ voice emphasising the difference between what she defined as “soul” and what she feels was irresponsibly referred to as “jazz”; the echoes of these words is – no doubt – the kind of specialty that speaks to Mr Bolaños’ important contribution to this recording.
Mr Carlberg scores high marks for this musical excursion. First, there is the depth of his understanding of music’s continuum and complete and rapt immersion into the world of Miss Williams and her music, as well as through the eloquent and intellectuality of his pianism. He uses nuanced dynamics and his fingerwork is eloquent and utterly poignant. Every note sounds fresh and alive, and his varied touch perfectly matches the mood of each piece – as you might discern for yourself from “Mary Lou, Mary blue”, “Broken stomp” and “Waving Goodbye”. As a co-composer of this music he and Mr Bolaños have penetrated Miss Williams’ aesthetic so completely that it might as well have been her own work itself, although Mr Carlberg and Mr Bolaños are at pains to explain that this is not so, nor is it intended to be so. For his part Mr Bolaños enters into the music as a full partner in its conception, and performance. The ephemeral sounds that he brings to this work are not only essential to atmosphere and aesthetic, but absolutely essential in making this a recording to absolutely die for.
Track list – 1: Charity and love; 2: Mary Lou, Mary blue; 3: Zodiac impressions; 4: Ancient winds; 5: Mary’s Aires; 6: Broken stomp; 7: Big sky, dark clouds; 8: Soul and jazz; 9: Hop, skip, jump; 10: Water under the bridge
Personnel – Frank Carlberg: piano; Gabriel Bolaños: laptop and electronics
Released – 2021
Label – Red Piano Records [RPR14599]
Runtime – 52:28