Pianist Jessica Williams may not be as well known, say, as Mulgrew Miller or Kenny Barron, but she's a powerful and talented pianist more than a little influenced by Thelonious Monk. Still, with an immediately recognizable playing style all her own, Williams clearly belongs in the upper ranks of mainstream pianists, and her latest disc, Live at Yoshi's Volume One , recorded in July of 2003, continues to affirm her position.
In a programme composed primarily of well-heeled standards, with two originals and an unusual Billy Cobham song thrown in for good measure, Williams and her trio, featuring bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis, play with energy and complete commitment. Williams' style is defined by a percussive approach that seems quick to spit out ideas; she often jots out rapid phrases peppered with brief octaves. If an artist's playing reflects their personality, then Williams must be energetic and quick-witted, as evidenced by her solos in "I'm Confessin' That I Love You" and "You Say You Care." There is clear joy in her playing and more than a little bit of tongue-in-cheek at times.
But that doesn't mean Williams isn't capable of tenderness as well. Her reading of Billy Cobham's simple ballad "Heather," over Lewis' lightly funky backdrop, is graceful and lyrical. Still, while there is poignancy to her playing, there is a certain power, albeit slightly restrained, that defines her attack. On "Alone Together," the most extended piece of the set, she plays the kind of left hand/right hand counterpoint that is so characteristic of Brad Mehldau, creating hypnotic patterns that raise the tension level until she finally releases, to an almost audible sigh of relief from the audience.
Williams' own "Tutu's Promise" comes from Keith Jarrett's space, not unlike "The Cure," being nothing more than a simple four-bar pattern that is used as a simple jumping off point for group interplay. Her "Poem in G Minor" is another simple piece, this time a quiet ballad with Williams' staccato runs alternating with more gingerly built chord passages.
Drummond and Lewis are, as always, the definition of sensitive support, gently provoking Williams on "Mysterioso," while elegantly embracing her delicately swinging work on "You Say You Care."
Williams may not break new ground, but as a mainstream pianist she demonstrates a solid sense of solo composition, capable of starting with an idea and developing it over the course of seven or eight minutes. Her focus and wry sense of humour are amongst her most distinctive characteristics, and they make Live at Yoshi's Volume One an engaging, albeit safe, listen.
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