Like pianist Mulgrew Miller, who recently released a second volume of trio performances from his run at Yoshi's, pianist Jessica Williams is also putting out her own sequel, another 70 minutes of music culled from her July, 2003 stint at the Oakland club, which has become as renowned on the west coast as New York's Village Vanguard is on the east. And it's interesting to hear how different the two pianists are, despite the fact that both fit comfortably within the broader mainstream.
For one thing, Williams owes a clear debt to Thelonious Monk. She often includes a Monk tune or two in her sets, and this disc is notable for the absence of material by the idiosyncratic pianist/composer. Still, his influence presents itself in Williams' sometimes quirky approach, although she's a far more dextrous player than Monk ever was.
But like Monk, Williams sometimes demonstrates an ironic sense of humour, grabbing onto a note, say, and milking it for all it's worth. It's like a good comedian who knows just how long to use repetition: enough to be effective, but not so much as to overstay her welcome. Her own brightly swinging "Elbow Room uses a little clever dissonance in its wry theme, with clever references to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue during Williams' extended solo. Her solo lead-in to the Oscar Hammerstein/Jerome Kern standard "Why Do I Love You, with its oddly disjointed left hand/right hand action, is the perfect introduction to the trio's more straightforward entrance. Williams' solo is filled with curious shifts between hard-swinging lines and injected little turns of phrase that seem at first like non sequiturs, but ultimately make perfect sense.
But that's only one aspect of Williams' playing. The disc opens with a version of "Flamenco Sketches, from Miles Davis' classic Kind of Blue, but rather than maintaining a peaceful ambience throughout, Williams and her trio carefully build the piece from elegant gentility to a greater sense of power over the course of nine minutes, making it dramatic but never melodramatic. Bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis seem empathic in their ability to ebb and flow while Williams layers dense chords that alternate with more playful single-note phrases.
In fact, playful may be the best word to describe this pianist. She's capable of a more tender lyricismbest demonstrated on her own ballad, "Spoken Softly, and a darkly evocative version of Gershwin's "Summertime that shows there's still plenty to say with even the most familiar of material. But the sparkle of "Lulu's Back in Town, with Williams' debt to Errol Garner in full view, is light and just plain fun.
Williams may not be the most adventurous player, but with her combination of whimsy and more deeply-felt romanticism, she succeeds at being both entertaining and emotionally compelling. Live at Yoshi's Volume Two is a strong companion piece to Volume One, and proof that the mainstream is alive and well.
Personnel: Jessica Williams: piano; Ray Drummond: bass; Victor Lewis: drums.