Acoustic Sounds

Aaron Diehl & The Knights

Zodiac Suite



Label: Mack Avenue

Produced By: Aaron Diehl and Eric Jacobsen

Engineered By: Todd Whitelock

Mixed By: Todd Whitelock

Mastered By: Chis Muth

Lacquers Cut By: GZ Media

By: Fred Kaplan

September 26th, 2023


Jazz Big Band



Aaron Diehl Tackles Mary Lou Williams' Long-Lost Masterpiece

The full jazz-orchestral "Zodiac Suite" re-created for the first time since 1946

Aaron Diehl & the Knights’ Zodiac Suite may be the most important album of the year, but because “important” is such a wearying word, implying obligation and cryptic boredom, I should quickly add that it’s also an album of joy, swing, and surprise.

It is the first complete, professional recording of Mary Lou Williams’ orchestral-jazz composition of that title, and therein lies a story.

Williams, who died in 1981 at the age of 71, was a pianist and composer who should be much better-remembered than she is. A prodigy who supported her impoverished family by playing for parties at the age of 6, she was composing pieces for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman in her 20s and consorting with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie—the entire be-bop crowd—in her 30s, not as a hanger-on but a peer, exchanging as well as just absorbing sophisticated musical ideas. She was also a versatile pianist, infusing the swing of Ellington, the bounce of Fats Waller, and the syncopation of Monk into her own distinct style. In 1977, at the age of 66, she staged a duet concert at Carnegie Hall with Cecil Taylor, the lion of the avant-garde. Judging from the album of that concert, it was more clash that collaboration; still, her venturesome pursuit of new ways to combine tradition with revolution, even at that late date, is striking.

She wrote Zodiac Suite in 1945, inspired in part by Ellington’s Black Beige and Brown (which he’d performed at Carnegie Hall two years earlier), in part by the classical modernists (notably Bartok and Schoenberg), whose works she was studying around the time. (Keep in mind: this was a dozen years before Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream” fusions of jazz and classical music.) She recorded a trio version of the suite that same year, then staged and recorded a chamber-orchestral performance at Town Hall in ’46 with Ben Webster on tenor sax. That concert’s tapes, stolen and lost for nearly a half century, have since been released on an album; it’s a bit of a mess—the band had hardly rehearsed, the mix is muddy—but you can make out some of the magic. It deserves consideration in the same breath as Ellington’s suites; there are also harmonic touches worthy of Bernstein, Gershwin, and a fluttering of Ravel.

Yet this Black female pianist-composer who isn’t also a singer has largely been forgotten over the years. (Any guesses why?) Things changed a bit just before the turn of this century. Horace Silver, the legendary post-bop pianist, told trumpeter Dave Douglas he ought to look into her works. He checked out the trio recording of Zodiac Suite (which had been issued by Smithsonian Recordings). It “felt like something modern, out of time, and something to be revisited in light of further developments in the music,” Douglas told me in a recent email. His 2000 album, Soul on Soul, was dedicated to Williams and included four of her compositions, including one movement, “Aries,” from Zodiac Suite.

Around the same time, by coincidence, Linda Dahl published Morning Glory, a biography of Williams. The pianist Geri Allen started delving into her works, taking over the Mary Lou Williams Foundation and, in 2006, recorded Zodiac Suite Revisited, a fiery, more improvisational but still spiritually faithful adaptation of the entire suite, with bassist Buster Williams and drummers Andrew Cyrille and Billy Hart. In the past couple years, bassist Jeong Lim Yang recorded another trio version, Zodiac Suite Reassured, and pianist Chris Patishall laid down Zodiac, a surrealist solo take on the suite.

But nobody had set out to recreate the entire suite with piano and an 18-piece big band, as Williams had scored it.

 Until now

Aaron Diehl, a classically trained jazz pianist of unusual elegance and virtuosity, has been probing some less-traveled alleyways of the jazz tradition for some time now. (A few years ago at Mezzrow in the West Village I saw him play a piano-bass duet program of pieces by Williams and Roland Hanna). He told me in a recent phone conversation that he’d never heard of Mary Lou Williams until 2003, when, as a new student at Juilliard, he saw Father Peter O’Brien—a Jesuit priest and a jazz fan—present a concert of students playing her music. A few years later, Diehl started regularly playing piano at a Black Catholic church in Harlem. O’Brien came to speak one Sunday, recognized him from the Juilliard concert (the two had spoken afterward), and renewed their conversation.

It turned out O’Brien had been very close to Williams. She had converted to Catholicism in 1954. Dizzy Gillespie (who would play a few brashly arranged movements of the Zodiac Suite at the 1957 Newport Festival, with Williams on the piano) knew O’Brien from jazz gigs and recommended him as a spiritual guide. He became not only that but a close friend and, eventually, her manager. She had dropped out of the music world upon her conversion. O’Brien encouraged her to re-enter and to write pieces of sacred music, which she did—dozens of them. On that Sunday, O’Brien offered to share the compositions with Diehl. A few years later, Diehl recorded some of them at Avatar studio, with O’Brien producing. O’Brien died in 2015, the tapes were nowhere to be found.

Diehl moved on to other things—writing his own compositions, adapting some of Philip Glass’ etudes for jazz trio, working as Cécile McLorin Salvant’s pianist in her breakthrough years. During the pandemic, with lots of time on his hands, he decided to take another look at Mary Lou Williams. He found out that the score for Zodiac Suite had been published. He ordered a copy, listened again to the two recordings she’d made (the trio and the long-lost Town Hall orchestral concert), found lots of discrepancies in the score (probably copyist errors), and set about correcting—or, who knows, maybe in some cases improving—them.

By the time the lockdown was over, he and the Knights performed a few of its movements at Lincoln Center as part of an event for the ensemble’s donors; then again at 92nd Street Y, in a concert that also included one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the last with Diehl’s own cadenzas, rearranged in a way that Gershwin might have done (as Diehl once told me) “if he’d known how to play jazz piano.” I’m not saying Williams was as majestic an arranger as Bach or Gershwin, but her portion of the concert didn’t sound out of place.

Williams called the piece Zodiac Suite because each of its 12 movements is named after a sign of the Zodiac, dedicated to a musician friend who was born under that sign (“Aries” for Ben Webster and Billie Holiday; “Taurus” for Ellington; “Aquarius” for Eartha Kitt; “Libra” for Gillespie, Monk, Parker, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and John Coltrane; etc.).

It's a remarkable piece of music, each movement distinctive, each shifting, in very different ways and tempos, from one mode or style to another—boogie-woogie to Monkish dissonance to Gershwinian elegance to dance-hall swing to melancholy balladry to Americana romance—all riveting. It’s “postmodernism” well before the term was coined.

Diehl planned to take the show on the road, but COVID’s Omicron variant put an end to that idea. Instead, he and the Knights rehearsed it several times, then went into the studio. The results are majestic. Diehl lays down the piano parts—sometimes the melody, sometimes the harmony, sometimes a moody rumble—with fine panache and swing. The Knights handle every twist and curve with superb craftsmanship, and the solos are top notch. This has the heart, beat, and soul of a true fusion of jazz and classical, not some finger-snapping jazzed-up classic.

Todd Whitelock, who has recorded many albums for the Mack Avenue label (including Diehl’s earlier albums and the ones he recorded with Salvant before she departed to Nonesuch), was at the helm for Zodiac Suite as well. He and Diehl wanted to record it in a concert hall but couldn’t wrangle a deal, so they set the session at Power Station’s Studio A, an octagonal space, large enough to let them spread out but intimate enough to let them hear one another without having to use headphones (an important thing for both of them).

Whitelock laid down the tracks in 96/24 ProTools, capturing most of the sound with five Sennheiser omni microphones, spotting the various sections and soloists with a variety of other strategically chosen mics—AKGs, Neumanns, Schoepses, Coles, and an RCA77—at lower levels. He plugged the main mics into a GML console, the others into a Neve (one of the last of the hand-built 8068s), then mixed it all in analog. Chris Muth wanted to use the tapes from the analog mix as the source for mastering the LP, but couldn’t obtain them, so had to use the same digital master that he used as the source for the CD.

In any case, the sound is excellent—smooth and colorful but also fast and crisp. You could be fooled into thinking it was recorded at a concert hall—the soundstage is wide, deep, the players’ positions are palpable without being etch-a-sketch cold. Dynamic range is maneuvered by the orchestra director, Eric Jacobsen’s balancing skills, not by any electronic tricks imposed by Whitelock or Muth. The LP is a bit better than the CD—dynamics are subtler, instrumental colors more detailed—but not by a lot.

The album lasts a mere 37 minutes, but this means you can listen to it many times without killing an entire day or week. It bears a casual sound soak and the most intense scrutiny. Dive in.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: MAC-1201

Pressing Plant: Precision Record Pressing

Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 180 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Presentation: Single LP


  • 2023-09-26 09:52:30 AM

    Adrian Galpin wrote:

    Thanks Fred, for the 'heads up' on this important release from this shamefully neglected modern master, I shall be trying to order it from London, SO little of Williams work is out there on vinyl, I hope that this is a start of a wider availability of her astounding work.

  • 2023-09-26 05:25:13 PM

    John Marks wrote:

    What a wonderful discovery! Thanks to all! john marks

  • 2023-09-27 12:17:21 PM

    Ronan O’Gorman wrote:

    Thank you Fred, today, no one is writing about Marylou Williams? I have the Zodiac Suite on CD, and it is a great album. The album that is really extraordinary is "Black Christ of the Andes". It has a beautiful mix of gospel (Ray Charles Singers and The George Gordon Singers), blues and jazz. The album opens with "St.Martin de Porres" and closes with "Praise The Lord". They feature a choir and singers in very different settings. I encourage TA readers who want to hear something astonishing to listen to this album. Marylou was a woefully under appreciated pianist and artist. I look forward to hearing Aaron Diehl's record. Thanks again Fred for bringing Marylou Williams to the Tracking Angle audience.