THE DOZENS: ESSENTIAL JESSICA WILLIAMS by Scott Albin

Superlatives abound in the many reviews and articles about the now 61-year-old pianist Jessica Williams, as well as in comments concerning her that have been made by fellow musicians. Yet many also wonder why Williams is not better known to the jazz audience in general, although her profile has expanded somewhat in recent years.

 Jessica Williams by Elaine Arc

Is it a case of sexism, or is it simply that she has spent most of her career performing primarily in California and the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps it’s due to the fact that, despite recording prolifically, she has never done so for a major label. Also, she has presented herself almost exclusively as either a solo pianist or with a trio, and rarely since early in her career has she been a supporting player for another leader, thus limiting her opportunities for exposure through association with other name players.

Whatever the reason for her relative lack of recognition, Williams has persevered, earning two Grammy Award nominations, receiving grants, awards, keys to cities, and owning both a music publishing and a record company. She also maintains an excellent website, jessicawilliams.com, on which one of her other talents—writing—is revealed (although she has also written the liner notes for many of her CDs). Her writing on various subjects resembles her playing: open, provocative, perceptive, and inquisitive.

As a pianist, she displays great technical ability (grounded in her classical training at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory), appealing rhythmic inventiveness and flexibility, impressive left-hand dexterity (no doubt drawn from her early experience with the Hammond B-3), and she can also sustain long improvisations without ever becoming stale or repetitious. She has been as much influenced by saxophonists like Rollins and Coltrane as by pianists such as Monk and Red Garland. Dave Brubeck, for one, has called her “one of the greatest jazz pianists I have ever heard.”

Narrowing down a still growing list of Williams’ consistently high-quality recorded performances to a mere 12 is a futile endeavor, so please accept the dozen reviewed here just for starters.


Jessica Williams: Kristen

Track

Kristen

Artist

CD

Nothin' but the Truth (Black Hawk 51301)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano),

John Wiitala (bass), Bud Spangler (drums)

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Composed by Jessica Williams

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Recorded: Hayward, CA, Feb. 26, 1986

Williams

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

The Williams trio with Witala and Spangler had been playing together for about six years when the Nothin' but the Truth album was recorded. For the session, Williams introduced one of her loveliest compositions, "Kristen," which she had written for artist Kristen Wetterhahn while she was the house pianist at the Keysone Korner in San Francisco in the late '70's. The trio give the tune a treatment that brings out all of its inherent grace and beauty.

The melody of "Kristen" is an ethereal wonder that is heightened by Williams' ringing tone, trilling ornamentations, and warmth of expression, as well as by the intuitive support of Wiitala and Spangler. The pianist's solo is sweepingly lyrical, ranging from resonant chords—both gentle and powerful—to feverish extended lines. Think Hampton Hawes meets Bill Evans. Her return to the poignant theme after this variegated and inspired statement offers a pleasing contrast, but her out-chorus contains still more surging, technically masterful passages. Still relatively unknown except on the West Coast at the time of this performance, Williams' inimitable style was already pretty much fully-formed.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: The Nearness Of You

Track

The Nearness of You

Artist

CD

At Maybeck (Concord 4525)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano).

Composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington

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Recorded: Maybeck Recital Hall, Berkeley, CA, Feb. 16, 1992

Albumcoverjessicawilliams-liveatmaybeckrecitalhall

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Williams was living in Portland, OR at the time she recorded what became Volume 21 of the prestigious Maybeck Recital Hall solo piano series. While the respect and admiration for her playing was still largely confined to the West Coast, it was perhaps that regional recognition that resulted in her invitation to join the ranks of other better-known pianists who had already performed at Maybeck, such as Barry Harris, Marian McPartland, Kenny Barron, and Hank Jones. In turn, the release of Williams' At Maybeck broadened her exposure more than had any of her previous albums.

"The Nearness of You" is one of the most impressive tracks, and surely turned more than a few heads her way for the first time, creating future loyal fans in the process. Williams begins with parallel modulating figures, dissonant note clusters, and whirling dervish runs, before a semblance of the theme finally emerges. She continues with more subtle embellishments, but still often provocative and unpredictable in the direction and resolution of her phrases. The pianist uses the entire keyboard, as is her wont, dwelling for a time in the upper octaves while maintaining an appealingly swaying rhythm with her left hand. Williams gets progressively deeper inside the tune's harmonic structure with intricate, logical, and always listener-friendly variations. The reprise of the melody features a sprinkling of Monkish "trinkle-tinkles," before a playful yet heartfelt ending.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: A Gal In Calico

Track

A Gal in Calico

Artist

CD

In the Pocket (Hep 2055)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano), Dick Berk (drums),

Jeff Johnson (bass)

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Composed by Arthur Schwartz and Leo Robin

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Recorded: Portland, OR, July 28, 1993

Williams

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

"A Gal in Calico" is one of a number of Williams' recorded tracks over the years that can rightfully be called a tour de force. Both Dave Brubeck (Jessica's earliest influence) and Williams herself wrote separate liner notes for her In the Pocket CD on which this selection appears. Brubeck writes, "She treats the melody like Stravinsky approached the theme of 'Star Spangled Banner,' skipping all over the octaves of the original theme, instead of the sequential melodic notes of the normal range." Williams observed, "There's a place in 'Gal in Calico' where the left hand plays a bass line in the middle of the piano and Jeff's bass line is in the lower register and Dick's just wailing along. Now that works because it doesn't get so cluttered that it gets confusing."

Musical analysis aside, "A Gal in Calico" works because of its freshness, constant element of surprise, and clarity of vision. Williams' deconstruction of the melody is daring and yet remarkably easy to follow and appreciate. Her long solo features quick, nervous flurries, impish arpeggios and runs, breathtaking block chords, and a supremely flexible rhythmic pulse. Johnson's resoundingly assured bass solo and Berk's thematic drum exploration are each augmented by Williams' very imaginative commentary. The pianist's subsequent trades with Berk are dazzling, with Williams playing some dexterous two-handed counterpoint and even reaching up to pluck part of the theme on the piano's strings. Few jazz pianists could match, much less top, this virtuoso performance.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: The Sheikh

Track

The Sheikh

Artist

CD

Encounters (Jazz Focus 005)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (bass),

Mel Brown (drums)

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Composed by Jessica Willliams

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Recorded: live at Atwater's, Portland, OR, Sept. 10, 1994

Williams

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

"The Sheikh" was written for veteran bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who joined WIlliams and drummer Mel Brown for the pianist's first live club recording. Williams prefers not to rehearse bands in order to ensure freshness and spontaneity, and those two words greatly apply to what is heard here. "The Sheikh" has gone on to become a staple in Williams' repertoire, and is among the original compositions she has most frequently recorded.

Vinnegar's bass figure and Williams' complementary chords lead to the concise, fetching vamp that essentially comprises the theme. Williams both dampens and strums the piano strings, developing percussive patterns, as Vinnegar maintains the insinuating bass line. The pianist now alternates between strummed strings, chirping phrases, and forceful chords, before bluesy passages and insistent block chords dominate the remainder of her solo. Brown in his improv makes inventive use of sundry parts of his kit, from bass drum to rims, and he also seems to employ a hand or elbow to create effective muffled textures. After Williams revisits the theme, Vinnegar, fittingly, is left alone to to carry the piece to its satisfying conclusion.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: If I Were A Bell

Track

If I Were a Bell

Artist

CD

Encounters (Jazz Focus 005)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (bass),

Mel Brown (drums)

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Composed by Frank Loesser

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Recorded: live at Atwater's, Portland, OR, Sept. 10, 1994

Williams

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

"He definitely brought out a lot of my influences, " Williams said about playing with bassist Leroy Vinnegar during this live club session, adding, "At one point I felt like Wynton Kelly." She was likely referring to the track "If I Were a Bell," which recalls the many Miles Davis performances of the tune with not only Wynton Kelly at the piano, but also Red Garland. Williams' 13-minute interpretation swings like mad, and showcases the trio at its best, both as individual soloists and in rapt group interaction.

Williams glides jubilantly over the rhythm team's relaxed yet driving cadence. Her bluesy, singing lines bubble over with engaging creativity, supplemented by her indomitable, often spiky left-hand voicings. Monkish dissonance and Garland-like block chords filter through the unrelenting Kelly-inspired propulsion. When Williams suddenly turns pianissimo, wittily quoting from "I Get a Kick Out of You," this allows Vinnegar to move up-front and go on one of his inimitable "walking tours," graced by the pianist's simpatico comping. Williams then hooks up with Brown for exchanges that emphatically confirm the drummer's substantial skills, capped by a solo exhibiting a melodicism that compares favorably with the similar approach of Max Roach. Williams returns with a spacy free-fall concluding fantasia that never loses its inventive way.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: Mr. Syms

Track

Mr. Syms

Artist

CD

Gratitude (Candid 79721)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano).

Composed by John Coltrane

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Recorded: Portland, OR, June 20-21, 1995

Williams

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Williams has often remarked that her piano style is more influenced by saxophonists than by other pianists, usually singling out Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, and John Coltrane. She has recorded a number of Coltrane compositions, including "Transition," "Dear Lord," “Equinox," and "Mr. Syms." The latter is a 48-bar minor blues with a bridge that appeared on Coltrane Plays the Blues. Coltrane mainly delivers the theme to open and close the track, with McCoy Tyner as the main soloist, so in this case Williams is as much taking her cue from Tyner as from Trane.

Tyner's solo has a dark, lower register rumble that contrasts starkly with Coltrane's soprano, and Williams' solo maintains a similarly dark hue for most of the way. Williams' sound reverberates due to her reliance on the piano's middle pedal (as she indicates in her liner notes). Her fluttering runs and bluesy riffs compete at times against the resulting heavily pronounced left-hand chords. The pianist's playing is initially very indebted to Tyner, but the meatiest part of her improv is distinctively Williams—rapid, staccato extended lines accentuated by a persistent stride-like left hand. There's also an exploratory looseness about the performance as a whole, as she leaves Tyner territory near the end of her solo for some adroitly executed two-handed blues piano that segues back to a fervent review of the theme. This concluding section is warmly reminiscent of Mary Lou Williams at her spirited best.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: Solitude

Track

Solitude

Artist

CD

Higher Standards (Candid 79736)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano),

Dave Captein (bass), Mel Brown (drums)

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Composed by Duke Ellington and Eddie DeLange

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Recorded: Portland, OR, Nov. 19-20, 1996

Williams

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

"Solitude," which Ellington wrote in just 20 minutes under deadline pressure, was a key component of Duke's playlist from 1934 up to his death in 1974, when Ella Fitzgerald sang it movingly at his funeral. The tune has, of course, lived on to this day, but in the wrong hands can sound overly sentimental or wooden. Williams' version, on the other hand, seems at times to open up the standard to new possibilities, while also remaining refreshingly in the tradition. "Higher Standards" indeed, as Williams' first all-standards CD is entitled.

Williams begins unaccompanied and rubato, with headlong runs and filigreed arpeggios. Upon introducing the melody, she heartily embellishes it, going into stride mode for good measure. When Captein and Brown make their first entry, Williams reenters the theme with a quickly passing allusion to "Four" by Miles Davis, before briefly adopting Ellington's keyboard style, only to surge off into an up-tempo solo that we can imagine Duke would have "loved madly." The pianist's two-handed swing-fest contains blues-tinged angularity, technically impressive parallel lines drawn from her early classical training, her always welcome block chords, and intriguing left-hand adornments. Williams' exchanges with Brown delve into stride and Monkish inflections, and even include a quote from "Exactly Like You." The out-chorus is a take-no-prisoners romp that unexpectedly evokes Count Basie in its very last notes.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: Bemsha Swing

Track

Bemsha Swing

Artist

CD

In the Key of Monk (Jazz Focus 029)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano).

Composed by Thelonious Monk and Denzil Best

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Recorded: live at Steinway Concert Hall, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, May 31, 1997

Williams

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Those following Williams' career from the '80's to the late '90's were delighted when In the Key of Monk, her long-awaited live-in-concert tribute to Thelonious, was released in 1999. She had always been one of the most original interpreters of Monk's tunes, and, when so inspired, often interspersed elements of his style into performances of unrelated standards and her own compositions. In her liner notes, Williams wrote, "The truth is that a musician playing a Monk tune sounds like Monk because Monk tunes sound like Monk tunes. They're authentic, genuine distillations of Monk's musical point of view, and they inevitably affect the course of improvisation that any musician might take playing them...If you hear Monk in me at times, that's because he's a natural part of my musical make-up now."

"Bemsha Swing" was actually a collaboration between Monk and the usually uncredited Denzil Best. Williams initially plucks out the basic blues-oriented theme on the piano strings, before mixing in some choice key strokes. When she focuses exclusively on the keyboard, she uses a herky-jerky left-handed stride rhythm in conjunction with rapid-fire spiraling arpeggios for an enticing reinvention of Monk's tune. The pianist then refers back to the theme only to jump off into harmonically and rhythmically challenging and provocative contrapuntal dialogues. Williams' ability to create intricately woven opposing yet complementary lines simultaneously in each hand is an endless joy and wonder to hear. She departs as she entered—plucked strings heralding her return to Monk's melody as written.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: Straight, No Chaser

Track

Straight, No Chaser

Artist

CD

Jazz in the Afternoon (Candid 79750)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano),

Dave Captein (bass), Mel Brown (drums)

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Composed by Thelonious Monk

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Recorded: live at Chemekata College, Oregon, Feb. 8, 1998

Williams

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

"I seem to be in my Johnny Griffin bag here," Williams wrote of this stunning 13-minute track, "chorus after chorus after chorus, exploring one idea after another." The pianist starts off her solo with frolicking staccato runs after only briefly hinting at the well-known Monk theme, using a resounding left-hand bass figure to provide the momentum until the full trio robustly launches into the melody proper. Williams' marathon solo is a lesson in how not to repeat oneself and still remain fluidly and cogently in control. Captein and Brown provide encouraging and compelling support, and the leader's ongoing interplay with Brown in particular is remarkably intuitive. Williams' inventiveness nearly overwhelms, as she succeeds in reaching successive, diverse peaks of creativity. Brown's ecstatic drum solo, and his following delightful trades with Williams, are prime examples of his polished percussive talent and consummate Max Roach-influenced approach. Williams tosses in an appropriate nod to "Blue Monk" as she draws to a close this wonderful performance by arguably the best trio she's ever led.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: Warm Valley

Track

Warm Valley

Artist

CD

All Alone (MAXJAZZ 206)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano).

Composed by Duke Ellington

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Recorded: Brooklyn, NY, Aug. 16-18, 2002

Williams

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

The sensuous, reverent "Warm Valley" was originally introduced by Duke Ellington as a feature for Johnny Hodges' alto, and has rarely been covered by pianists over the years. Playing solo, Williams interprets it memorably here. (See review on jazz.com of Earl Hines' performance, one of the other notable exceptions.) This is Jessica Williams the reflective balladeer, the other side of the often more uninhibited, effusive player. Those two sides complete an unbeatable master of jazz piano.

Williams' short intro is both glowing and majestic, and the same can be said for her treatment of the theme, highlighted by her clarion touch, gradational ornamentations, and a hypnotically serene and soothing pace. Some of her twittering arpeggios bear the stamp of both Ellington and Monk's pianistics, and a bluesy ambiance quite effectively and subtly pervades one of her choruses. However, it is the striking immediacy of her open-hearted articulation that is perhaps the most compelling aspect of this glorious interpretation, so fully captured by recording engineers David Baker and Ed Reed.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: Toshiko

Track

Toshiko

Artist

CD

All Alone (MAXJAZZ 206)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano).

Composed by Jessica Williams

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Recorded: Brooklyn, NY, August 16-18, 2002

Williams

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

There's no doubt that Jessica Williams, like other women in jazz, has been inspired by those who came before her, such as Mary Lou Williams and Toshiko Akiyoshi. In fact, Jessica maintains a growing list of "Women in Jazz" on her website. Williams was the house pianist at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco when she met Mary Lou, who told her: "Don't ever let anyone stop you." Akiyoshi has studied Japanese history, culture, and traditional music, all of which permeate many of her compositions, including "Kogun," “Tales of a Courtesan," "Long Yellow Road," and "Kourakan Suite." Williams distinctive original, "Toshiko," serves as a tribute to Akiyoshi by acknowledging its namesake's interest in Japanese folk music.

"Toshiko" has the pensive air and delicacy of a Japanese folk song played on a koto. Williams renders the melody with sparkling clarity, enriched by tenderly struck left hand chords. The pianist does little else but play the theme in a deeply affecting manner, and in her final chorus becomes powerfully emotional before tempering her attack back to its original musing and yearning nature. This is one of Williams' sparsest, and most concise and unassuming recorded performances.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jessica Williams: Alone Together

Track

Alone Together

Artist

CD

Live at Yoshi's, Volume One (MAXJAZZ 210)

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Musicians:

Jessica Williams (piano), Ray Drummond (bass), Victor Lewis (drums).

Composed by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz

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Recorded: live at Yoshi's, Oakland, CA, July 9-10, 2003

Williams

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Sometime after Williams recorded this absorbing extended live version of "Alone Together," she surprisingly wrote the following on her website: "I've probably played 'Alone Together' for the last time, but the last time I played it, I forgot entirely about those extra bars tacked onto the A sections—the major-minor thing. It's one of those tunes that has fascinated me for a long time and then suddenly I lost interest. Maybe I just thought I liked it. Looking back, I don't think I ever did." Hopefully she'll reconsider, but until then we can enjoy this classic Williams' track (not to mention her previously recorded renditions), with a state-of-the-art rhythm team of Ray Drummond and Victor Lewis.

Williams typically breaks up the rhythm before flowing unaccompanied into the melody and embellishing it with interesting harmonic alterations. This leads to interlacing contrapuntal lines that reach a satisfying resolution signaling the entry of Drummond and Lewis at the three-minute mark. She now adds long, serpentine runs to the mix, and for a time utilizes a continuous and varying left-hand bass line that nearly makes Drummond superfluous. When Williams initiates a sustained swinging medium-tempo groove, this allows bass and drums to finally lock gears with the pianist as she continues to explore the many nuances of the elegant Dietz-Schwartz standard. Her lavish block chords set the stage for Drummond's resolutely lyrical solo. Williams' swift, swirling interlude that follows is thrilling, and her deftly elaborate coda gives way to well-deserved, generous applause from the audience at Yoshi's.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


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