Aaron Diehl approaches the piano with a delicately nuanced expressivity and an exquisitely attuned touch that have garnered him acclaim at the highest levels. From his collaborations with such jazz innovators as Wynton Marsalis, Cécile McLorin Salvant and Benny Golson, to his exploratory work in the classical realm with Philip Glass or the New York Philharmonic, to his own current-crossing recordings as a leader, Diehl is singularly committed to a journey of musical discovery regardless of genre or context.
On his latest album, Zodiac Suite, Diehl pays homage to composer/pianist Mary Lou Williams while unearthing new possibilities and pathways from one of her landmark works. Joined by the orchestral collective The Knights and special guests Evan Christopher (clarinet), Nicole Glover (tenor sax), Brandon Lee (trumpet), and Mikaela Bennett (soprano), Diehl breathes vibrant new life into a masterwork that the composer herself was never able to fully realize during her lifetime.
Diehl’s ventures into Williams’ expansive work are fully in keeping with his own musical trajectory. The Columbus, Ohio native began studying classical piano at the age of 7, while his passion for jazz was sparked during his attendance at the Interlochen Arts Camp in his pre-teen years, when he was exposed to the staggering, virtuosic swing of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. By 17 he was a finalist in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition, where he came to the attention of Wynton Marsalis. Diehl spent the summer before his first year at Juilliard touring Europe with the Wynton Marsalis Septet.
Winning the American Pianists Association’s 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship brought Diehl to wider fame and landed him a contract with Mack Avenue Records; Zodiac Suite is his fourth leader release for the imprint. The broad spectrum of his influences has been evident from the outset, with his 2013 label debut The Bespoke Man’s Narrative including a Ravel piece alongside a Gershwin standard and an Ellington classic. His most recent release, The Vagabond, touched on composers from Sir Roland Hanna to Prokofiev to Philip Glass, as well as his own masterful compositions.
Through his role as musical director and pianist for the visionary vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, Diehl simultaneously became an in-demand soloist with classical ensembles including the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the L.A. Philharmonic.
His performances have included Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, and Florence Price’s “Concerto in One Movement.” In 2024 he will premiere a new commission by composer Timo Andres with John Adams conducting the LA Philharmonic. That same year Diehl will succeed Bill Charlap as artistic director of 92NY’s long-running “Jazz in July” series.
Premiered in 1945, Zodiac Suite is best known in the trio incarnation that Williams recorded for the Asch label; within the same year she also performed the piece, each of its movements inspired by an astrological sign, in expanded versions for chamber-jazz ensemble at the Town Hall and for symphony orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Arriving just three years after Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige” and a dozen years before Gunther Schuller coined the term “Third Stream,” the Carnegie Hall event should have been hailed as a touchstone in the fusion of jazz and classical music, but a lack of preparation and rehearsal time led to a compromised performance, leaving Williams frustrated, never to reprise the epic arrangement.
“Mary Lou Williams evolved and changed over time,” Diehl says. “She lived through a significant portion of the development of 20th century music, but she always kept her foundation intact. The roots were always there. She struggled continually with people accepting her on her own terms and recognizing her significant contributions. I hope this album will encourage people to investigate more of her music.”
Diehl’s connection to Williams’ body of work is a personal one. In 2003, he met Father Peter O’Brien, the elder pianist’s longtime manager and, after the composer’s death, Executive Director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation. Their paths crossed initially through a performance of Williams’ music by the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra while Diehl was a student. Later, in 2006, the two encountered each other at St. Joseph of the Holy Family in Harlem, where Diehl was music director, and O’Brien was a guest presider.
O’Brien asked Diehl to perform Williams’ “Mass for the Lenten Season,” though a planned recording was derailed when the priest passed away in 2015. “His passion inspired in me a sense of responsibility,” Diehl writes in his liner notes, “a delving further into Williams’ oeuvre, and a continued mission to emphasize the importance of her contributions.”
“It’s an ongoing challenge, even today, to incorporate the language of Black American folk music into this very Eurocentric identity with all its nuances,” he said. “I can only do my small part to celebrate Mary Lou Williams’ music whenever it’s possible because she was such a brilliant artist. It’s important to keep advocating on behalf of these folks who are no longer with us and to keep their music in people’s ears for generations to come.”