Rifftides Revisited: Jessica Williams

Occasionally, the Rifftides staff trolls the archives with an eye for older posts that hold up. Here is one from three years ago this Memorial Day weekend.

Time out of the writing crunch to hear successive Jessica Williams concerts was time well spent. Williams has taken a liking to The Seasons and returned there with her new trio for two evenings. On Saturday,Williams, bassist Doug Miller and drummer John Bishop played a Duke Ellington program. The repertoire, except for the infrequently heard calypso “Angelique,” was made up of sixteen of Ellington’s most familiar pieces. She opened with “C-Jam Blues,” closed with “Take the ‘A’ Train” and included “I Got it Bad,” “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me,” “Satin Doll” and…well, you get the idea. A routine Ellington lineup, perhaps, but Williams’ piano playing and her interaction with Miller and Bishop were far from routine.
Thumbnail image for Jessica Williams Smiling.jpgWilliams employed all of her virtuosity; the improbably long fingers executing piston keystrokes, the extended crossed hands passages, the stride left hand, the tremolos, the polytonality. Still, what captured the crowd was the swing, warmth and humanity of the music. Following a distracted start on “Prelude to a Kiss,” Williams called a halt and got sympathetic chuckles from the audience when she said, “If you can forgive others, you can forgive yourself.” She started the song again, soloed with passion and comped like a guiding angel behind a Miller bass solo that was a highlight of the concert. Williams’ concept for the evening was to program it as if the trio were playing for a dance. Indeed, she encouraged people to dance in the area between the front row of seats and the stage. Three couples did, rather tentatively, during “Mood Indigo,” but one of them told me later that the listening was so good, dancing was a distraction. That’s an interesting switch on the old complaint “Why don’t you play something we can dance to?”
Sunday, Memorial Day eve, Williams premiered a new composition, “Freedom Suite,” not related to the 1958 Sonny Rollins piece with the same name. She dedicated the six-movement work to veterans who died in all US wars from the American Revolution to Iraq and Afghanistan. Prefaced with a flag ceremony by women volunteers from a Veterans of Foreign Wars unit, the suite began with an other-worldly piano introduction to Miller’s bowing of “Taps,” its resonance supported by Williams’ impressionistic chords and the shimmering swell of Bishop’s cymbals. The movement called “Night Patrol” surged with modal intensity through piano and bass solos into a Bishop drum solo over an insistent pedal point.
Introducing the “Final Wish” section, Williams said, “I finished writing this one at 3:30 or 4:00 o’clock this morning. I wanted it to be perfect–and so far, it is.” She showed Bishop the bass part she had written for Miller, explaining the varied rhythms she wanted through a series of eight-bar sections. Bishop nodded and smiled, and with only that discussion for a rehearsal, the trio played the piece for the first time. It remained perfect.
Leaning into the piano, Williams stroked the strings like a harpist, setting up insistent three-four time that supported the dirge of the final movement, “Lament.” By way of her virtuosity through an unaccompanied solo that at times suggested an affinity for early McCoy Tyner, she managed to express optimism as well as sadness before Miller and Bishop rejoined her for a final statement of the theme.
This is an initial impression of a work I want to absorb further. We may all have that opportunity. The concert was recorded and could appear on a CD. If that happens, I’ll let you know.

So far, it hasn’t happened. Stay tuned.

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  1. Ted says

    Jessica is a true artist, a servant to her art. She deserves much wider recognition. When I play one of her CDs, I almost always have to play it a second time.
    I don’t think that ranking people is very helpful, but, Jessica has never left my internal Top 5 list since I first heard her.
    I didn’t make it to this show, but I do hope she releases it eventually. Sooner would be better than later.