Performing at Duke University’s new Rubenstein Arts Center, which is a perfect space for jazz concerts, Chris Pattishall and his dynamic group performed the music of Mary Lou Williams and featured her Zodiac Suite.

The concert began with a solo by Pattishall. But before playing Williams’ “What’s Your Story Morning Glory,” he shared a little bit of his own story as well as some of Williams’ story. Pattishall grew up in Durham and was influenced by the strong jazz community here, partly due to the fact that Williams was Artist-in-Residence at Duke from 1977 to her death in 1981. Not only was Williams a gifted pianist and composer, but throughout her career she was also a strong advocate for developing and caring for the jazz community. Many local jazz musicians benefited from her residency here, most notably, the fine pianist Chip Crawford, who Pattishall cites as one of his earliest and most influential teachers. Pattishall has studied and played a lot since leaving Durham, and for the past ten years he has been living and working in New York. Much of these last ten years has been devoted to Williams’ music.

Pattishall then played an excellent solo piano rendition of the bluesy “What’s Your Story Morning Glory” which Williams wrote for Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy in 1938. Next up, he was joined by his rhythm section of Marty Jaffe on bass and TJ Reddick on drums as they played “Syllogism,” a later Williams piece that has a grooving bass line and modal harmony. For the third tune, Williams’ “Waltz Boogie” (1946), Pattishall introduced us to his two horn players, trumpeter Riley Mulherkar and tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover.

These first three tunes were excellent with Pattishall’s masterful soloing and accompanying, Jaffe’s rich full sound on bass, Reddick’s tasty and driving drums, and the wonderful solos and sounds of Mulherkar and Glover. But on “Waltz Boogie” it became obvious that we were hearing something much greater than just five fine jazz musicians playing the excellent music of Williams; the larger and more important component of the performance was Pattishall’s orchestration of the music. His skillful orchestrating was intriguing because he used a large palette of textures, colors, dynamics, moods, and tempos to express the music. I especially liked how Pattishall organized the music. He presented the melody in a rich blend of the horns, followed by creative improvisations by the other musicians, and then the group would release from improvisatory energy and lower their volume as the original melody returned to conclude the piece. Throughout the rest of the concert, we would hear this glorious variety of sound and form, and hear it done excellently by a band that seamlessly executed it all.

The Zodiac Suite was written by Williams in 1945 and was originally recorded by her on piano with bass and drums. Each of the twelve movements are dedicated to different jazz musicians that Williams worked with. It was this recording that Pattishall transcribed and then arranged for the five-piece group. But Pattishall also did another creative thing; he included video and sound enhancement. 
As the twelve-part suite began, we saw projected on the large screen behind the players the improvised video work of Kim Alpert. She began our visual journey with thousands of stars in the universe. As the suite progressed, she grabbed our eyes with the way she moved the stars, and changed colors, depth perception, and tempo, all to enhance the wonderful music we were hearing. Sound engineer Rafiq Bhatia subtly added sound enhancements such as echoes and distortion that made the piano improvisation sound extra special.

There were many special moments for me in these twelve unique movements. Pattishall showed his deep understanding of his jazz and classical mentors when we heard him evoke the style of Duke Ellington, Errol Garner, Thelonious Monk, George Gershwin, and Claude Debussy. Reddick’s drum solos showcased his incredible technique, but he was also a constant support for the rest of the group. Mulherkar presented us with many sounds on the trumpet that I bet many people in the audience had never heard, from his low soft rumbles to growls and pitch bends – all performed with soft and warm dynamics throughout the full range of his horn. Glover was so impressive with her beautiful warm tone and brilliant ideas.

When the band reached its highest dynamics and intensity of the concert, it was a fitting conclusion of the Zodiac Suite. Following the standing ovation, Pattishall came back on stage to give us an encore. He chose Williams’ “Ma Mama Pinned a Rose on Me,” and it was perfectly accompanied by Alpert’s video of a rose.

There are so many great things to say about the music and this group. It is a captivating production deserving of a wide audience. I do think it is important to say that these five musicians are among the new generation of top jazz artists. Pattishall, Jaffe, Reddick, Mulherkar, and Glover are outstanding and we should expect to hear a lot more great work from them.