The history of jazz is littered with unhonored prophets like Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981), best known to jazz buffs, if at all, as a master of stride piano. But she was evidently a much more interesting, forward-looking composer and musician than that — and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, in another of its electrifying collaborations with the Luckman Jazz Orchestra, tried to do her justice with a survey of some of her late sacred music. While the performances reached heights of gospel-inspired fervor, there was little sense of how far Williams could go.
In some ways, Williams and her sometime collaborator Duke Ellington occupied opposite sides of the same coin. Both were piano players with vast composing pretensions who never stopped growing, continuously absorbing influences from the times in which they lived. By the 1960s, Williams had immersed herself completely into religion, and along with several other jazz figures (Dave Brubeck, Vince Guaraldi, Lalo Schifrin, the Duke himself) started fusing sacred texts with the idioms that she knew.
One of these works was a compendium of short, separate pieces that was originally known as “Music for Peace,” and with addenda composed for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, which acquired the title “Mary Lou’s Mass.” In 2005, Smithsonian-Folkways reissued a recording that Williams made for her own Mary label, revealing a quirky suite for a handful of voices, small combos and Mary Lou’s boppish piano that caught some of the jazz-rock currents of the late ’60s, even venturing into the classical avant-garde.
At Disney Hall Sunday night, though, there was something else — a rescrambled assemblage of pieces of the “Mass” and other sacred Williams numbers for a massive chorus and big band, often rearranged by singer Carmen Lundy or pianist Lanny Hartley. Instead of a thrumming rock/funk electric guitar, many of these excerpts were driven by conga-accented boogaloos. Williams’ more radical visions were watered down; the Penderecki-inspired “Lamb of God,” with its wild vocal dissonances, emerged tamed and declawed.
There was plenty that was right in spirit about these performances — the foot-stomping, fast-strutting gospel heat of “Praise the Lord” and “The Lord Said”; the sizzling solos and sharp ensemble from the Luckman group; the magnificent response that conductor Grant Gershon always drew from the voices. A lot of it actually improved upon what Mary Lou Williams, probably under financial constraints, set down in the recording studios some 35 years ago.
Yet in this loving, well-meaning attempt to keep her music from sounding dated, it’s possible that part of Williams’ authentic voice was lost.