Aaron Diehl's Zodiac Suite by Mary Lou Williams

Born in Atlanta in 1910 and raised in Pittsburgh's vibrant music scene, Mary Lou Williams was a trailblazing jazz pianist, composer and arranger. From swinging with big bands of the 1930s to concentration on sacred music and hymns in the 1960s, her career spanned several decades and numerous styles. Throughout her life, Mary Lou was a mentor to many younger musicians including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. She continued to push the boundaries of jazz, earning her due recognition as one of the most influential women in the history of the genre.

2011 American Pianists Awards winner Aaron Diehl has made a distinctive mark on the music world with his mix of classical and jazz influences. Whether leading trio at famed jazz clubs around the world or joining the New York or LA Philharmonic, he brings the best of both genres to fore.

In September 2023, Mack Avenue Music Group will release his latest project—a collaboration with the NYC-based orchestra, The Knights, performing Mary Lou’s “Zodiac Suite.”

The Knights are a collective who often cross genre boundaries, incorporating classical, jazz and contemporary music into their repertoire. Formed by brothers Eric and Colin Jacobsen, the ensemble consists of accomplished musicians who are also soloists, composers and improvisers. Their unique approach to orchestration and willingness to explore new musical territories has garnered acclaim from audiences and critics alike.

Photo of The Knights
The Knights

From the Jacobsen brothers:

“The Knights are most inspired by artists who challenge us, who widen our musical world, and who speak to the current moment while acknowledging the past and looking to the future. Pianist Aaron Diehl fully embodies each of these attributes, and with this project he has brought us deeply into the world of Mary Lou Williams and her long-overlooked chamber orchestra version of Zodiac Suite.

Alongside Aaron, we've done a deep dive into the various aural and written sources that exist, which include Mary Lou's own trio version; several handwritten parts and scores that had received various and mixed editing treatment; and a live recording from the premiere at Town Hall, an ill-fated outing that discouraged her from following up with more work in that form. The process has felt both like excavation and unveiling, and as we got to know the piece, the clarity of the writing, the intriguing blend of jazz and classical vocabularies and harmonies, and the vivid colors and moods of these twelve character pieces came to life. We're endlessly grateful to Aaron for being our guide throughout this journey. The care and loving attention to detail brought to this music has yielded something incredibly special, and we invite you to truly listen to the Zodiac Suite in all its parts to get the complete picture of Mary Lou Williams' genius.”

Mary Lou Williams composed the classical-influenced Zodiac Suite in 1945, and each of the twelve parts corresponds to a sign of the zodiac. She dedicated each to several of her “very beautiful friends,” including Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.

Here is Aaron for more:

Photo of Aaron Diehl at a piano
Aaron Diehl

“My personal connection to the music of Mary Lou Williams dates back to 2006 when I became acquainted with the late Fr. Peter O’Brien, her longtime manager and later the Executive Director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation. Fr. O’Brien was a tireless advocate for all things Mary Lou, and his death in 2015 left many planned projects unrealized, including a recording of “Mass for the Lenten Season.” His passion inspired in me a sense of responsibility, a delving further into Williams’ oeuvre, and a continued mission to emphasize the importance of her contributions.

Zodiac Suite’s first iteration on Asch Records was the framework for the arrangement heard here. Each movement represents the zodiac sign of various musician friends and colleagues of Williams—“Aries” for Billie Holiday and Ben Webster, “Taurus” for Duke Ellington, et cetera. The scale of this composition motivated the composer to expand and broaden her palette, with ambitions for the work to evolve beyond the original piano trio format.

The story surrounding the premiere of this orchestration at The Town Hall on December 31, 1945 is as rich as the suite itself. Her intentions were clear, but the circumstances leading up to the concert were challenging to manage—the ensemble was unprepared to the point where, in certain movements, Williams had to omit the orchestral parts and perform alone or only with the rhythm section. She left the premiere frustrated by the outcome, never revisiting this version of a piece that, in its original instrumentation, became known as Mary Lou’s tour de force.

Sometimes masterpieces are instantaneous, but our perception of what is great is often nurtured by the privilege of revisitation and reassessment. Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige,” cited as the influence behind “Zodiac,” polarized critics during its 1942 debut at Carnegie Hall. Bruckner’s 3rd Symphony, clearly disliked by members of the Vienna Philharmonic during the initial reading, had a premiere that included sounds of the audience (and some musicians) leaving the hall. Not unlike Bruckner, who stopped composing for a year, Mary Lou Williams took a sabbatical after the disappointment of the Town Hall concert.

Even in the 21st century, reconciling the disciplines of the orchestral realm with the expansive world of Zodiac Suite necessitated a collaboration that was built upon enthusiastic exploration of a work in progress. The Knights not only agreed to perform a piece like this but, more importantly, also invested their time and resources to give it the treatment it deserved from its inception. They were a critical partner in showcasing the potential of this orchestration. From the initial reading at Jazz at Lincoln Center in October 2021, to the studio session in May 2022, their dedication supplanted any frustrations that were a result of the impact of the pandemic.

For all of the hardships she endured during her career, this rendition of Zodiac Suite is a testament to Mary Lou Williams’ resilience and serves as a reminder to continue celebrating her legacy by highlighting the vast range of her musical output.”

Zodiac Suite album cover designed by Lorna Simpson
Zodiac Suite album cover designed by Lorna Simpson


Aaron Diehl & The Knights Zodiac Suite will be released on the Mack Avenue label on September 15, 2023. A limited edition 180-gram vinyl version of the project will be released in partnership with the American Pianists Association. Zodiac Suite is the fourth album from Diehl on Mack Avenue Records: available on CD, vinyl and digitally, and can be ordered here at a 20% discount. 

Those in Indianapolis can hear Aaron and his trio with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra on Saturday September 30.


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