Jaki Byard: European Episode

This piece appears on Out Front also, but this version is a killer solo performance on Blues for Smoke, Jaki’s first record date. It’s an excerpt from a lengthy piece by Jaki that goes through a lot of piano history. I know I've adopted that all-encompassing aspect of his playing. Jaki was comfortable in many styles, and was totally committed to all of them. Anyway, this piece is very quick and the listener gets to hear Jaki’s phenomenal agility. His hands weren't large, but he was able to play sounds that pianists with big hands cannot even attempt to grasp.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: Bemsha Swing

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.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: Mr. Syms

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.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: The Nearness Of You

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.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Keith Jarrett: Someone to Watch Over Me

This is a very nuanced performance, and one almost senses that Jarrett is playing the Gershwin standard for himself, not for an audience. The setting (this track was recorded at his home) and circumstances (the artist was recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome) no doubt reinforce this atmosphere of an artist who has retreated from the world to converse with his own private muse. No flashy passages, no theatrical moments, distract us from his gentle development of the melodic line.

I especially like how Jarrett handles the harmonic movement of this song. As I have noted elsewhere, Jarrett displays a surprisingly respectful attitude toward the old standards, and rarely engages in radical reharmonization, unlike most Gen X and Gen Y jazz pianists, who cannot resist twisting these songs into peculiar new structures. Yet this song, with its simple diatonic melody – it's one of Gershwin's most old-fashioned sounding tunes – almost requires a jazz artist to do something dramatic to give it some edge. Even so, Jarrett refuses to undertake a surgical reconstruction of the original. He makes small and subtle adjustments here and there to the chords, but remains absolutely faithful to the song's original essence. It testifies to Jarrett's artistry that he can achieve so much with such delicacy and restraint.

I am even tempted to use the word "modesty"—not a term typically thrown at Mr. Jarrett—in describing this performance. Perhaps it is an unusual word to apply to any jazz outing, given the heroic traditions of jazz, a genre which always seems most at home when it reaches for the excessive and intense. Nonetheless, modesty is not a bad way of describing the maturity with which our pianist allows this Gershwin song to emerge under his sensitive fingertips.

May 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Donald Brown: On Green Dolphin Street

Donald Brown initially settles the melody of this standard on an ostinato by the bass notes of the piano. It will remain a guideline to his whole interpretation. Whatever his virtuoso right hand may do with the harmony and around the melody in the upper register, the left one doesn’t just accompany it. It weaves a fascinating, ever-changing rhythmic line that compels our ears to follow both hands at the same time.

March 03, 2008 · 1 comment


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