© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
🎧 We met our goal for the Spring Membership Drive! Thank you to everyone who contributed! ❤️

Jazz musician Aaron Diehl on his rendition of 'The Zodiac Suite'

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL AND THE KNIGHTS' "LIBRA")

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Do you know the zodiac signs of your friends? The late Black jazz legend Mary Lou Williams did. Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane - they were all Libras, so Mary Lou wrote a song for them and called it "Libra." She wrote 12 songs, in fact, each named after one of the zodiac signs and most of them dedicated to a friend or group of friends. It's called the "Zodiac Suite."

AARON DIEHL: To be honest, she even admitted herself that she was no fervent astrologist. She really used the "Zodiac Suite" and the astrological signs sort of as a vehicle to dedicate music to some of her closest friends and colleagues.

RASCOE: Aaron Diehl is another celebrated Black jazz musician, a pianist like Williams, and now very much in his prime. He recently released a rendition of the "Zodiac Suite," a nominee for a 2024 Grammy Award.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL AND THE KNIGHTS' "LIBRA")

DIEHL: It was an attempt to capture the essence of her original intentions when she scored this arrangement and give an opportunity for listeners to hear the first complete recording of this orchestral arrangement of "Zodiac Suite."

RASCOE: Aaron Diehl says Mary Lou Williams didn't finish the orchestral arrangements for the suite. She worked on it for three years and got burned out from that and her other commitments. So he decided to pick up the project where she left off and bring it to completion. Aaron Diehl says an encounter at Juilliard, where he studied, inspired his interest in Mary Lou Williams.

DIEHL: I had the privilege of meeting a gentleman by the name of Father Peter O'Brien, who was Mary Lou Williams' manager for the last 20 years or so of her life. And he was both a Jesuit priest and a jazz manager, if you can square those two.

RASCOE: That's quite a combination.

DIEHL: Yeah, right? And he came to sort of advise the program on a Mary Lou Williams concert that they did back in, I want to say, around 2004 or so. A few years later, I started playing at a predominantly Black Catholic church in Harlem. Father O'Brien came on Sunday and recognized me, and so that was really the beginning of our partnership.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL AND THE KNIGHTS' "SAGITTARIUS")

RASCOE: So the original "Zodiac Suite" - it stands out because here was this jazz pianist and composer venturing into classical music, and that was a big deal at the time. Can you talk about why that mixture, that bringing together, was something that stood out?

DIEHL: Well, I think it's important to note that Williams - she insisted on never stepping into the cracks of sort of the hackneyed tropes around the expectations based on gender or race. She just wanted to be a great musician. And she was constantly pushing herself, pushing the boundaries for herself as a musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL AND THE KNIGHTS' "SAGITTARIUS")

DIEHL: She was very much into Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. Twentieth century composers really fascinated her, and she wanted to find ways of - through the language that she had already built the foundation - to incorporate the music of some of these 20th century European composers into her language.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL AND THE KNIGHTS' "LEO")

RASCOE: It's very beautiful, and there are the horns and the strings. Like, you know, many of the songs on the original "Zodiac Suite" were improvised. Like, did you improvise a lot also? And what were you thinking of?

DIEHL: This particular arrangement that I recorded, most of it is very much written out. I mean, when you're dealing with, you know, 20, 30 musicians, you know, there has to be some kind of roadmap, if you will. And so all of this is very much orchestrated, but there are certain instances where it does call for improvisation. "Virgo" is a great example of that. That is really the only, as we say, swinging movement in the entire suite.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL AND THE KNIGHTS' "VIRGO")

DIEHL: Those are all improvised solos within the structure of the piece itself.

RASCOE: Well, we actually have a section of "Virgo" from Mary Lou Williams' jazz trio version.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "VIRGO")

RASCOE: Like, how would you compare and contrast those two versions?

DIEHL: What I would say is, if you listen - if you're able to listen to a few times to the both of them, you'll hear a certain kind of consistency with the structure, with the form. And so I'm drawing from, essentially, the same language in - when I'm playing that Williams is also drawing from in her recording from the '40s.

RASCOE: It's - ultimately, what do you hope your project adds to the history and tradition of the "Zodiac Suite"?

DIEHL: Well, I think my ultimate goal is, hopefully, to create more awareness for who Mary Lou Williams was and her significance. I just hope people gain some kind of curiosity in what she dedicated her life towards, which was music. I mean, she lived and breathed music. She lived through all of the eras of what we call jazz constantly modernizing herself, adapting herself. She was a titan artist and musician, and I hope that people give her her credit and due.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL AND THE KNIGHTS' "CANCER")

RASCOE: That's musician Aaron Diehl talking about his new album with The Knights, the "Zodiac Suite." Thank you so much for joining us.

DIEHL: Ayesha, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL AND THE KNIGHTS' "CANCER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.