Recent Listening: Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams, The Art Of The Piano (Origin). Williams’ 2800-word liner essay declares renewed and deepened love for the piano and rededicated independence from the strictures and orthodoxies of the music establishment. She cites an internet video clip of Glenn Gould playing Bach as “…a life-altering event” that took her back to “…a music founded on the purity and clarity and infinite tonal colorations of the piano itself.” Those are qualities I have never found missing from her work, but for strength, serenity and pianism in all of its aspects, this concert at The Triple Door in Seattle reaches the heights of any solo performance I have heard from her.
Williams pays exquisite attention to harmonic color, touch, and the uses of time in a program of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” (here called “First Gymnopédie”), John Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament,” and five original compositions. When it was in the development stage in a previous recording, she referred to “Love and Hate” as “my step into the next zone.” This version is more settled at the same time that it is more adventurous in thematic development, with contrasting moods and massive, almost symphonic, harmonic structures. Music being multi-dimensional, she still also occupies a more earth-bound zone. She opens the CD rocking, perhaps nostalgically, in a good old blues in G. “Triple Door Blues” incorporates passages in which Williams uses strings Jessica Williams Smiling.jpgand hammers but not keys, and others that refer to the spirit and four-square swing of Erroll Garner.
“Esperanza” sounds as Spanish as its name. It has deep voicings that might have been written by Granados or Rodrigo, and dance rhythms redolent of Central and South America. A recurring phrase in “Elaine” hints at love songs of more than half a century ago, but the piece opens into a thoroughly modern ballad. “Diane” is another original ballad in which Williams’ delicacy of touch is a central element even as she builds intensity. In the Satie “Gymnopédie No. 1,” a Bill Evans influence on Williams’ interpretation is one color among many. Others are the blues and a brief Satie-like use of the pentatonic scale as in Japanese music. I know of no performance in which a jazz musician has explored the piece more thoroughly.
“Prophets” has the feeling of Coltrane in his late mystical period, with hypnotic modal figures in the left hand and flawlessly executed flourishes on top. Williams does not paint Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament” with the melancholy he gave it as the final movement of his 1964 album Crescent. Still, she subtracts nothing of the piece’s air of profound reflection and brings to it buoyancy that may be an indication of her new state of mind. She seems to have stepped fully into that next zone.

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  1. says

    Okay. I was quite taken with Doug’s review but had not heard the CD or read the included essay. But what I found most interesting was Ms. Williams’ discovery (re-discovery, it sounded like) of the “purity and clarity” and such of the piano, via works composed by Bach and played by Gould. Perhaps I extrapolated too much or too far, but even the Beatles reference buried in the “Get Bach” gag line seemed worth mentioning–all the artists named including Ms. Williams (of course) being representative of the glories to be found in the life-altering event of music, Bach’s and otherwise. Even though the words I used suggested it, I did not mean to say that Ms. Williams had ever been a Bach-ophile (I have no way of knowing that), nor that she might have erred by abandoning such… only that Bach, for listeners and musicians alike, has always seemed to be the perfect starting point.
    P.S. I do own the album now, and its beauty and intensity are staggering. Bravo!

  2. says

    Thanks for the clarification, Ed, and THANKS for the “staggering” part! I was always dense when it came to Bach, and it took Glenn Gould to open the door for me. I never was much of a sight reader, despite 8 years of Peabody. So I figured I should write music instead. Thank you for the kind words and the support, and thank you, Doug, for the great blog, the ONLY blog that I know of besides CNN that updates seemingly daily. -take care and stay warm -Jessica