This is a first-class fete to the mind and spirit of pianist-composer-arranger Mary Lou Williams, performed during her centennial birth year of 2010. Drummer Andrew Cyrille played with Williams when he was a teenager. Pianist Geri Allen played the Mary Lou Williams character in the Robert Altman film Kansas City and has performed a slew of tributes to Williams in various settings over the past few years as a steadfast champion and (as a female jazz pianist) grateful kindred spirit. (In fact the final track on Trio 3′s previous outing in 2009 was an Allen-penned tribute to Mary Lou.) Less conspicuously, saxophonist Oliver Lake and bassist Reggie Workman possess the breadth of taste and sense of jazz history that fosters a comprehensive appreciation for Williams’s versatile impact on the swing, bop, spirituals, third stream and avant-garde subgenres of the music.
The opening number, “Blues For Peter” — written for Williams’s friend, manager and priest, Father Peter O’Neil — by itself validates the five-night stand at Birdland. The entire quartet shifts in and out of the pocket between relaxed blues and shuddering cacophony with seamless agility. Lake squiggles like a hybrid of Eric Dolphy and Jackie McLean; Allen alternately jabs some notes and smears clusters of others; Workman buckles down with more robust pulsation; and Cyrille works stop-time beats and rhythms into the fiber. The rest of the program is nicely varied between the laconically gossamer “Ghost of Love” (featuring an opening Allen solo) to the boppish “New Musical Express,” to the crowd-pleasing closer, “Roll ‘Em,” boogie-woogie blues written for Benny Goodman, here capped off by a sprightly Cyrille solo. Other highlights include the early Williams classic, “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory,” with Lake making the refrain even more like Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” and a short but sterling solo rendition of “Libra,” from the “Zodiac Suite,” by Allen. Add it all up and justice is done to a formidable legacy.