Recent Listening: Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams, Songs Of Earth (Origin)

Williams, the Triple Door’s Steinway and the Seattle theater restaurant’s audience collaborate on yet another album of solo pieces by the pianist. The audience gets credit because their attentiveness, appreciation and courtesy help establish the atmosphere in which Williams creates seven pieces comprising a collection unlike any other in her vast discography. You can almost hear the audience listening.

For all of its suggestions of preconceived form, Williams must have spontaneously generated much of this music in performance. Its calm and thoughtfulness are illuminated by moments of surprise in which she seems to be discovering and disclosing facets of herself. That is what the best improvising performers do, and few pianists do it with more magnetism than Williams.

The keyboard touch that gave her previous Triple Door album its title is a marvel throughout this CD. The attribute equally in evidence in “The Enchanted Loom,” which has the vigor of a tribal dance, and “Montoya,” in which she suggests Spanish romanticism not only of the great Flamenco guitarist but of the era of Falla, Granados and Mompou. In John Coltrane’s “To Be,” Williams captures the mysticism of the version Coltrane recorded a few months before he died but also gives the composition—a sketch, really—more earthly substance, and vastly more whimsy, than did the five instruments on the Coltrane recording. The emotional high point comes in “Joe and Jane,” described by the pianist in her articulate liner notes as a “sorrowful psalm” to men and women who serve in the armed forces. The performance has elegiac qualities combined with down-home earnestness that reminds me of church music I’ve heard in the rural southern US.

In my review two years ago of Touch, I wrote:

People in the jazz community, particularly pianists in awe of Williams’s consistency, creativity and constant growth, often discuss why so many critics and the business side of jazz seem deaf to her brilliance. Whatever the reasons, they must be sociological, political or cultural. They cannot be musical…

Based on her playing here, I renew that expression of puzzlement.

COINCIDENTALLY, Her new album appears as Jessica Williams faces surgery and major expense for a long and persistent spinal problem. She has launched an appeal for help. You will find details on her website.

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