The incomparable Jessica Williams brings a musical lifetime to her compositions and her playing.
Thursday, December 9, 2004
When Jessica Williams takes the stage for a solo recital, she’s not alone. It’s not just that Williams, among the most lyrical and expressive pianists in jazz, draws inspiration from the music’s giants. It’s the way her performances can feel like a form of channeling, a “well of souls that speaks through us at special times,” she says, as can be heard on last year’s exquisite solo session All Alone.
For her performance on Saturday at the Jazz & Blues Company, she’ll be focusing on her original compositions inspired by piano great McCoy Tyner and the late drum innovator Tony Williams.
“I tend to draw a lot of inspiration over and over from people,” Williams says. “One would think I’d have gotten tired of listening to these records after 30, 40, going on 50 years, records like A Love Supreme [by John Coltrane], Saxophone Colossus [by Sonny Rollins].
“I’m not tired of Dexter Calling because it makes so much sense,” she says, referring to tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s classic 1961 BlueNote album.
For Williams, summoning jazz heroes like Gordon, Tyner, Tony Williams and Elvin Jones isn’t an act of ventriloquism. While she has composed a number of musical tributes, she doesn’t seek to evoke a musician’s sound, but rather an emotional essence, like a sketch artist capturing a subject’s inner life with a deftly placed line.
While Williams is a private person who mostly avoids interviews, she has created a Web site that offers an intimate glimpse into her musical world
(www.jessicawilliams.com). A superb writer, she describes her deep connection with artists like Coltrane, Mary Lou Williams and Thelonious Monk, and offers evocative snapshot descriptions of musicians she encountered as a young player coming up in Philadelphia—like drummer Philly Joe Jones—or while working as the house pianist at San Francisco’s storied 1970s jazz club, Keystone Korner.
In one passage, she recalls receiving an embrace from a sweat-drenched Elvin Jones.
“He was playing this ballad with brushes, and it was like he was digging a big hole with soup spoons,” she writes, “and he was sweating rivers, and the time in that ballad was as deep as any river.”
Within moments of hearing of Jones’ death last spring, Williams sat down and recorded a solo tribute to him, an album that is now available through her Web site.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t listen to him or think about him,” Williams says. “I just remember him bringing in a bag of oranges to Keystone Korner and sitting there peeling them. And I remember him hugging me, and leaving me soaking wet. I didn’t know him hardly at all but through his music, and I have this feeling that he was full of love.”
That’s an apt description of Williams’ music, as can be heard on her recent MaxJazz recordings with her extraordinary trio featuring drum master Victor Lewis and bass virtuoso Ray Drummond, an occasional Monterey resident. Their latest release Live at Yoshi’s Volume One, which followed the trio’s impressive 2002 debut, This Side Up, ranks among the best in Williams’ formidable discography. She notes that they all grew up listening to the same music, were moved by the same players, and absorbed the same musical values, which are the same guidelines that govern her thrilling solo performances.
“Treat it gently, but throw caution to the wind once in a while,” Williams explains. “Play within the changes, but don’t be afraid to take it out a step or two, but never so far that people won’t be able to hear it and feel the love in the music. I think that’s the first priority…to always communicate. It’s always about how can we touch the people.”
Jessica Williams plays the Jazz & Blues Company this Saturday, December 11, at 7:30pm. the Eastwood Bldg., San Carlos and 5th, Carmel. $45. 624-6432.