Jessica Williams: Musical Truths
The three albums Williams refers to as the ones that have moved her away from "the old music" are Songs for a New Century, The Art of the Piano (2009), and Touch (2010); all solo piano sets. This is where Williams jettisoned the hype and expectations, and truly became who she is.
Of the first of this triptych, Songs for a New Century, William says, "I made this sucker because I was tired of proving myself, over and over again. I'm 62; I made this when I was around sixty. And I just said, 'Wait a minute, why do I have to prove myself.' Miles [Davis] just hung the trumpet up for five or six years, didn't play at all, painted some pictures, and when he picked up the horn again he was really rusty, but he put a band together that scared everybody, but he did exactly what he wanted to do. He didn't listen to anybody. He didn't care. He was completely ostracized. The critics just trashed him, and I even heard Wynton Marsalis say, on Charlie Rose, 'Miles, he doesn't play jazz anymore. That isn't jazz.' Well, you know, that Wynton, he should just [cool it.]"
Williams' music has always had an feeling of refinement and eloquence, even when she's playing a deep, low down tune like her original "Dirty Dog Blues," from her Dedicated to You (Red and Blue Records, 2000). She can play with an uncommon, almost superhuman speed, as she does on her masterful Tatum's Ultimatum (Red and Blue Records, 2007), and with the highest level of technical proficiency, always. But with Songs for New Century, she went deep into herself, and came back out with pure, undistilled beauty, and zero bullshit.
"It was a departure mainly in that it was done all for me," Williams explains. "For me and the people who listen to me. It wasn't for the promoters or the record executives."
Williams had, of course, had some dealing with the record business people when she was making her older music. "You know, I've had record executives come into the room during a tune and say, 'Stop! Stop, I don't like the harmonica part,' or something. [laughs] Don't ever do that to me [laughs again]. And I was really into the music and I'd have some idiot saying, 'Play it faster. Can't you play it faster?'
"So that [Songs for a New Century] was the first present to myself of completely unspoiled freedom, recorded at my house, with no one telling me what to do," she continues. "John Bishop [of Origin Records] put it out, and it sold quite well. And then we put out The Art of the Piano, and that was me doing the same thing, except it was in front of a bunch of people."
The Art of the Piano was recorded live, in front of a lucky and appreciative audience at The Triple Door in Seattle. It is a stellar outing, a small incremental step forward from Songs for a New Century. The highlight of The Art of the Piano, if one can be picked on such a straight through work of excellence, is Williams' original "Love and Hate." Of this song, Williams says, "It just started out as a framework, and it took me 13:58 seconds to play it. I had no idea until I saw the video of that it was that...beautiful. It made perfect sense to me.
"During that time between Songs for a New Century and The Art of the Piano, I'd become a fan of Carlos Montoya, and I noticed that when he played those traditional Spanish pieces, that he improvised like crazy," Williams continues. "He did anything he wanted to do. He didn't care. He went into all these different time signatures, and just before he would start he'd sometimes play these licks that sounded like Cecil Taylor. And I realized that this man had reached such a level on his instrument that he didn't have to bother with what anybody thought. And that's why I like him. He has an abandon in his playing. And that really influenced the piece 'Love and Hate.' Now that piece I took from a framework that was only a minute long, and it went on all that time, and parts of it sound like a classical symphony. It has sadness, it has weeping, it has joy. And I just went with it."
Williams says the classical pianist Glenn Gould also influenced her work around this time.
"Glenn Gould because he seriously and strongly affected my music, and 'Songs for a New Century' was made right around the time I saw the first YouTube episode from the CPC. That's enough to change your life if you're a serious musician.
"Now I can put on Glenn Gould's [Bach] 'Goldberg Variations,' made just before he died, and I can listen to the whole set, and this stuff is amazing, yet you can put it on during dinner because there is a purity and gentleness. It's just amazing. He reached a level that I want to reach in my life in which he didn't care one whit what people thought of his little bald spot in back or what they thought of him as a person or whether he was hamming it up or not."
Gould was something of an eccentric. His performances have been described as looking "like a man having an argument with himself." There is much arm movement as he conducts his own solo piano performance. He sings. He may leave the piano stool to stare out the window to vocalize, then return to the keyboard at the precise and perfect moment to continue. Williams says, with a laugh, that he looks like: ..."a whole committee playing the piano, and I believe he wasn't hamming it up. He was enjoying the movement and the thrill of what he thought Bach intended."