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Aaron Diehl, The Knights & Eric Jacobsen

Aaron Diehl & The Knights Release ‘Zodiac Suite’

Critically acclaimed pianist and composer Aaron Diehl’s passion for the work of Mary Lou Williams is realized with the release of Zodiac Suite — the first fully-fledged professional recording of this incredible arrangement. Composed, arranged and orchestrated by Williams, this recording gives insight into her greater ambitions for the work, despite setbacks she faced during its premiere in 1945. Diehl and the Knights, with Eric Jacobsen, showcase the composer’s imagination and vision in a suite dedicated to some of her closest friends and collaborators. Out now on Mack Avenue Records.

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“A similar interventionist spirit was required when producing a new take of Williams’s “Zodiac Suite.” With its 12 movements — one for each astrological sign — the composer created affectionate portraits of admired artists and friends. While that composition has long been popular in its jazz-trio form, Williams was eager to adapt it for both chamber orchestra and a full orchestra. A document exists of the chamber version, capturing a live 1945 performance at Town Hall in New York, though that take’s lack of proper rehearsal time is audible in the final, muddled result.

So her chamber version was also in need of a contemporary champion. It has found one in Aaron Diehl — a pianist widely admired in both jazz and classical circles.

During the lockdown portion of the pandemic, he was joined by the New York Philharmonic as he played excerpts from the chamber “Zodiac” for the orchestra’s streaming channel. Yet on the new Mack Avenue recording, he’s joined not by the Philharmonic, but by the adventurous chamber orchestra the Knights, which is staffed by some of the brightest younger players on the classical scene. And they’ve clearly invested time in all 12 parts of Williams’s suite.

The Knights as a whole balance lightness of touch with a forward sense of swing in the opening “Aries,” and in the regal flourishes that Williams deployed in movements like “Taurus” and “Leo.” Strings in particular seem to revel in the bluesy sliding tones of “Cancer,” which also includes the guest tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover’s elegant soloing (in a spot originally conceived by Williams for Ben Webster).

The Knights flutist Alex Sopp emerges as a key figure as the suite progresses — including when she soars dreamily atop the rhythmic patterns of “Scorpio” for significant, exposed stretches. Diehl, the bassist David Wong and the drummer Aaron Kimmel are a consistent delight — as when providing authoritative piano-trio swing during “Virgo.”

In an interview, Diehl lavished praise on the chamber orchestra. “It’s hard enough — even in a small jazz ensemble, five or six people — to agree on the eighth-note triplet,” he said. “When you have multiples of that — 25 or 30 people — that always makes it more difficult. It’s always about negotiating how you’re going to play, how you’re going to phrase.”

Diehl credited the Knights’ artistic director and conductor, Eric Jacobsen, for his ability to “translate” the jazz-ensemble aspects of the “Zodiac Suite” to his full chamber orchestra.”
The New York Times

“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.”
The Guardian