Aaron Diehl & the Knights: Zodiac Suite review – Mary Lou Williams’s joyous 1945 work takes flight

Jazz history does not hear Mary Lou Williams’s name often enough, yet she was a prime mover and shaker in mid-century America: a piano prodigy, arranger for Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and confidante to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazzerati. Here, New York-based pianist Aaron Diehl and orchestral collective the Knights recreate Williams’s most celebrated work, Zodiac Suite, a portrait of the 12 astrological signs and a landmark in jazz-classical fusion. Mary Lou struggled to fully realise the piece – tapes of its 1945 debut performances were stolen – but it has remained popular, while crying out for the meticulous treatment supplied here by Diehl, a noted fusioneer.

Zodiac Suite is revealed as a joyous, enchanting creation. Each sign, with musician friends attached – Thelonious Monk for Libra, for example – marries orchestral motifs with jazz tropes. Scorpio mixes growling chords with sinuous clarinet and martial horns. Gemini (Mary Lou’s sign) combines rapid-fire orchestral chords with boogie woogie. The more leisurely Cancer has a tour-de-force tenor sax solo by guest star Nicole Glover. The moods crammed into each sign’s three minutes are a wonder, the playing – and on Pisces operatic singing – inspired. A triumph.