Writer and philosopher Manly P. Hall called the sun the greatest of natural fires and the most supreme of celestial bodies. Adoring the sun, he wrote, is one of the earliest forms of religious expression. Mounds, altars and temples have been raised to honor the deity of daylight. But in the art that jazz drummer and composer Lawrence Williams has developed in recent years, the glowing orb isn't only a symbol of the highest power, it is a stand-in for his own body. Repeatedly drawing it is a continual source of self-healing, a therapeutic way for Williams to revitalize himself as he deals with illness. It's as if he's created in art a counterbalance to his difficulties in life, which include a struggle with diabetes and a years-long wait for a kidney transplant.
In approximately two dozen of Williams' vibrant drawings and paintings, on view at SereNgeti Gallery, the star appears in a variety of styles. It's pictured as a golden pendulum hanging low and heavy or an orange mum bursting high in the sky. It is the oculus lodged in a pyramid or a prism floating in a violet night sky. Sometimes it's bald as a beach ball and other times it has black, wiggly rays like spidery tendrils.
Those suns in his paintings seem much like the radiance trumpeter Marcus Belgrave finds in the music that Williams composes.
Belgrave has been working with Williams since the '70s. In the early '90s he recorded a disc with the drummer made up mostly of Williams' tunes Working Together on the Detroit Jazz Musicians Coop Productions label and he published more of them in his Marcus Belgrave Songbook.
A Williams tune, Belgrave explained, isn't one "you are going to get the first time you play it or the first four times." But eventually you'll absorb a melody "that goes in so many different directions it gives a different float to your expression. It gives you a kind of euphoria."
If Williams' music isn't widely known, he has his supporters. Besides Belgrave, pianist Geri Allen, singer Nancy King, the Dutch Metropole Orchestra and others have recorded his music.
Belgrave heads up an evening of his music against the backdrop of his artwork at the SereNgeti. Allen will be on piano, Tonight Show and Marsalis-clan alum Robert Hurst will be on bass with saxophonist Donald Walden and drummer Andre Wright. And Williams will play as well.
To Belgrave, the connection between Williams' visual and aural art are clear. In both forms, says Belgrave, "whatever he feels, that's what he does." That's what makes his sounds and his visions seem so compelling he infuses them with a spiritual power so strong you can breathe it in.
Williams' work is on display through Feb. 8 at the SereNgeti Gallery, 2757 Grand River, Detroit; 313-963-809. Marcus Belgrave leads the musical tribute at 6 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 31. Tickets are $20.
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