Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Williams, Jessica (Jennifer)

"Don't ever let anyone stop you," is what Jessica Williams was once told by another relentlessly talented pianist, Mary Lou Williams. Indeed, she hasn't: her many recordings confirm a rare ability to combine prodigious technique with sustained invention, as well as unfailing sensitivity, inquisitiveness and wit.

 Jessica Williams by Elaine Arc

Jessica Jennifer Williams was born on March 17, 1948 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was four when she first played her grandmother's piano and began lessons at seven. At the age of nine she enrolled at the city's Peabody Conservatory of Music, and graduated at age sixteen.

At Peabody, she studied piano, music theory, ear training, and composition, but at 15 started playing with jazz groups around Baltimore, thanks to the impetus of her piano teacher Richard Aitken. Aitken had heard her improvise on a Rachmaninov Concerto when she was 12, and introduced her to Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," and then recordings by Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis. Soon Williams was copying the solos of jazz pianists, as well as solos by trumpeters like Davis, and saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Sonny Rollins.

Many of Williams' earliest gigs were with organ trios, both in Baltimore and also when she moved to Philadelphia at age 22. Her experience on the Hammond B-3 enabled her to develop an exceptionally strong and dexterous left-hand technique, aided by an 11-note left hand stretch.

In Philadelphia she played with drummer Lex Humphries and bassist Ed Crocket before joining the quintet led by drummer Philly Joe Jones.

Williams' first album as a leader, Portal of Antrim, was released in 1976. On it she performed on piano, electric piano, and organ, both solo and with bass and drums, all originals except for Coltrane's "Transitions."

In 1977, Williams moved to San Francisco and became the house pianist at the Keystone Korner. Among the highlights of her tenure there were her two weeks in a duo with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, as well as work with Bobby Hutcherson, Charlie Haden, Tony Williams, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, and many others.

Williams recorded the solo piano album Portraits in 1977. 1979's Orgonomic Music features trumpeter Eddie Henderson and John Coltrane's composition "Dear Lord." Rivers of Memory from 1980 features Williams overdubbing on piano, organ, synthesizer, vibes, drums, and keyboard bass, and on Update from 1982, she plays her originals and tunes by Rollins, Yusef Lateef, and Monk in a quartet which includes Eddie Harris.

Her 1986 release, Nothin' But the Truth, was a breakthrough of sorts, achieving her a Grammy nomination. The tight trio heard here with John Witala and Bud Spangler had been together for six years, and Williams debuted one of her most beautiful compositions, "Kristen," a poignant ballad enhanced by her ringing tone and a lyrical, varied attack that merges technical mastery with warmth of expression.

In October, 1988, she played piano on tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse's album Epistrophy, a tribute to Thelonious Monk recorded just a month before Rouse's death. This was followed by in 1990 by Williams' And Then, There's This, which led to two successful European tours and a number of recordings in the 1990s for Scotland's Hep and Canada's Jazz Focus labels, as well as the invitation in 1992 to give a solo recital to be released as Volume 21 of Concord Records' At Maybeck series.

Her treatment of Hoagy Carmichael's haunting "The Nearness of You" is impressive, with parallel lines, dissonant note clusters, and whirling runs which make it provocative and unpredictable, yet at the same time logical and listener-friendly.

The pianist relocated to the Pacific Northwest, and two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship enabled her to focus on developing a solo repertoire and style suitable for the concert stage. Williams' style was by now fully-formed and maturing rapidly, and her recording output, primarily solo or with trios, remained consistently rewarding. On her 1994 CD In the Pocket, she delivers a tour de force trio version of "A Gal in Calico," which pianist Dave Brubeck raved about in his liner notes, calling her "one of the greatest jazz pianists I have ever heard." Her extended solo on the tune is highlighted by impish arpeggios and runs, resonant block chords, rhythmic flexibility, two-handed counterpoint, and the plucking of part of the melody on the piano's strings.

In 1994 she also got to record a live album, Encounters, in Portland, Oregon with one of her favorite trios, with bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Mel Brown, her very first live club recording. Her swinging playing on "If I Were a Bell" has a Wynton Kelly-like propulsion, Monkish colorations and block chords remindful of Red Garland. Her original "The Sheikh" was written for Vinnagar, and showcases the pianist's inside-the-piano strumming, bubbly phrasing, and forceful chords.

Williams' 1995 solo version of Coltrane's "Mr Syms" on the CD Gratitude compares favorably to McCoy Tyner's solo on the original recording, but she brings much of her own personality to the piece as a whole with a stride-like left hand and an energetic and bluesy two-handed exploration.

For Higher Standards in 1996, Williams' trio with Dave Captein and Mel Brown refreshed Ellington's "Solitude," as the pianist constructs a surging up-tempo solo that draws in part from her early classical training.

Also in 1997, Williams founded her own recording label, Red and Blue Music, for which she has since self-produced in her home studio numerous CDs of her music only available through her website, jessicawilliams.com, where one also can find a collection of her fascinating writings.

On a few of the CDs for her company she has returned to the synthesizer, such as on Virtual Miles, Vol. 1 and Vol.2. For Red and Blue she has revisited Monk more than once, as well as paid tribute to Art Tatum (Tatum's Ultimatum), Coltrane (For Coltrane), and Yusef Lateef (Song for Yusef). She also released on her label a CD comprised of tracks from a 2001 return concert at Maybeck Recital Hall.

Williams has continued to record for other labels during this period. Her four albums for MaxJazz this decade included the Grammy-nominated Live at Yoshi's, Vol. 1 in 2004, a trio date at the club in Oakland, California with Ray Drummond and Victor Lewis.

Her captivating extended version of "Alone Together" finds Williams in free-flowing embellishment of both melody and rhythm, unaccompanied for the first three minutes. Contrapuntal lines, serpentine runs, and a modulating left-hand bass line lead to a sustained swinging groove and ultimately an elaborate coda.

Williams' 2002 MaxJazz release, All Alone, contains examples of Williams the reflective balladeer, just as effective in this vein as when in surging, unrestrained flights of fancy. Her memorable reading of Ellington's "Warm Valley" is glowing, majestic, and serene. Her original Toshiko," an homage to pianist for Toshiko Akiyoshi, is a pensive, delicate, and tender dedication, one of Williams' sparsest and most heartfelt recorded selections.

Williams maintains a growing list of "Women in Jazz" on her website, and she retains fond memories of meeting Mary Lou Williams at the Keystone Korner in the 1970s. She performed in 2004 and 2006 at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C., and more recently at the Diet Coke Women in Jazz Festival in New York.

From her home in a suburb of Tacoma, Washington, Williams has revealed through her website a personalized approach to the piano itself, newly updated in 2008. Among her observations:

-- "Back then I sat on a piano bench. Now I sit on a chair with a back. The chair stands 16 inches off the ground."

--"The chair back is essential for my technique, and the lower height enables such precision and dexterity and speed that I can't even play a piece on a regular bench anymore."

-- "The other thing is to remove the fallboard when I play (and of course the music stand, but I have been doing that for many years to gain easy access to the piano's strings) and that gives my fingers room to move about, not just from side to side but inwards toward the key's fulcrum."

-- "The piano's tone changes if I play closer to the fulcrum, so it's another way to change the sound and get more color out of the instrument."

-- "I use all three pedals, and the middle pedal is as important as the sustain pedal is. The soft pedal is essential. ...The tuning is better with the soft pedal down...and so is the tone."


As Leader

Portal of Antrim (1976 Adelphi)

Orgonomic Music (1979 Clean Cuts)

Update (1982 Clean Cuts)

Nothin' But the Truth (1986 Blackhawk)

And Then There's This (1990 Timeless)

Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 21 (Concord 1992)

In the Pocket (1994 Hep)

Encounters (1994 Jazz Focus)

Gratitude (1996 Candid)

Higher Standards (1997 Candid)

Joyful Sorrow: A Solo Tribute to Bill Evans (1998 Black Hawk)

In the Key of Monk (1999 Jazz Focus)

All Alone (2003 MaxJazz)

Live at Yoshi's, Vol. 1 (2004 MaxJazz)

Live at Yoshi's, Vol. 2 (2005 MaxJazz)

Billy's Theme: A Tribute to Billy Taylor (2006 Origin)

The Art of the Piano (2009 Origin)

Select CDs on Red and Blue (available only through jessicawilliams.com)

Virtual Miles, Vol. 1 (2000)

Virtual Miles, Vol. 2 (2000)

Maybeck 2001 (2001)

Song for Yusef (2003)

For Coltrane (2005)

Deep Monk (2008)

Tatum's Ultimatum (2008)

With Charlie Rouse

Epistrophy (1988 Fantasy)

Contributor: Scott Albin

Related Links

The Dozens: Essential Jessica Williams by Scott Albin