Jessica Williams is in love with Glenn Gould and doesn’t care who knows it. Here’s an excerpt from the latest entry in her blog, The Zone:
One night I was on a popular video sharing site (YouTube) and decided to watch and listen to Glenn Gould. I was dumbstruck. His music entered me and stayed there. It wasn’t what he was playing, it was the way he was playing it. I had never heard Bach played with such fullness and passion and gentleness. He caressed Bach, where most pianists play Bach like robots. They make it sound so mechanical. I know it was the way I was taught. To play the two and three part Inventions, one had to sit up perfectly straight, force your hands to emulate little claws, and play tic-toc tic-toc like a metronome. Like a machine. Hating math as I did, I certainly didn’t take to Bach. It wasn’t MUSIC to me.
I found Miles and Trane shortly after that, and spent the next fifty years believing that I hated Bach and all those “dead guys”.
There’s more to the affair than that. From passion for Gould, Williams builds an essay that challenges what she sees as a massive general fault in the cultural establishment, including many listeners.
When one improvises within the style of the early masters (read “dead” to detractors) one is also improvising within a style. The style, the rules, the framework are different. But it’s no less real, and, if done by one knowing the vocabulary, it is VALID. It is true art, true music.
There is a disease afflicting art and music, and it is not new. It is becoming more common, though. It is the need to put every single creation into a box, have a pre-made label handy for any contribution, and to dismiss, out of turn, anything that falls outside of one’s “tastes”… this is the elitist and critical view of our age, and it is destructive to children, to educators, to parents, to everyone.
It shows itself in our politics, our medicine, our science, and, most notably, in our ART (or lack thereof).
Regardless of whether you agree, it is a stimulating and provocative essay. To read the whole thing, go here.
YouTube has many videos of Gould. This one of the young Gould practicing a Bach partita is a good way to start.
Williams follows her essay with the transcript of a long interview; Jessica questioning Jessica. Here’s how it begins:
Q. What pianists do you like to listen to?
A. I like pianists who are musicians first. One of my favorites is Charles Mingus. His album Mingus Plays Piano on Impulse! is one of my favorite piano albums, period. And when I lived in Oakland, CA, I’d go down and hear Buddy Montgomery play piano. He was a vibist, but I loved his piano playing too. He played music. He didn’t just play piano.
It is difficult to say with certainty that Tatum’s Ultimatum is Williams’s most recent CD; she issues CDs the way the MacArthur Foundation issues “genius” grants (one of which she deserves). But it is new, and it is stunning. Despite its title, the solo album is not so much a tribute to Art Tatum or an evocation of his style as an exposition of the “fullness and passion and gentleness” that she admires in Gould, executed in some passages at supersonic speed with timing and accuracy that do recall Tatum.
One of her admirers who is also a world-class jazz pianist told me recently, “I think Jessica is the cleanest fast pianist I’ve ever heard.” She may also be one of the wryest. Humor is an essential component of her work. If you don’t believe it, listen to her romp through — of all things — Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur.” Even the dour Bechet would have smiled at her flourishes, her swing, the role reversal of her hands, her rhythmic displacments and reharmonizations. And Artie Shaw, who grew to hate “Begin The Beguine,” could not have resisted William’s version, if only for the joy of its suspended ending. Except for her “Ballade for A.T.” all of the pieces in the CD are standards, including a “trio” version of “Ain’t She Sweet” with Williams providing the synthesizer bass and drums, which seem anything but synthesized.