Jessica Williams: Musical Truths
Asked who impresses her in the music world, Williams says, "When I listen to Keith Jarrett, what I love about him is it's never the same. Sometimes it fails and sometimes it succeeds. When you walk those kinds of high wires, that's what you get. I don't love the way he treats his people, his audiences [Jarrett is famously curmudgeonly, berating audience members for coughing or sneezing during his performances], but I love the way he approaches the instrument by saying, 'I really won't take a preconception on this. I'll just do it, however I want to do it'; and every time it's different, every time it changes. Keith Jarrett, You don't get much better than that."
Jarrett is one of the world's most famous jazz men, but Williams also goes for some lesser-known artists.
"I like two people who haven't had the chance to record the way they should have," Williams explains. "They didn't get the support to do the things they could have done. I'm talking about people of such native greatness that probably they're not known as great, like Thelonious Monk, who had a real voice. But I would say two of my favorites are Kenny Barron and Benny Green. Those two voices just blow me away. But both Kenny and Benny have never been given the freedom like 'just go for it, baby.' Kenny has been a journeyman. He'll go where they need him. Actually, he reminds me of a Marine [laughs]. There's nobody like the Barron. And then when you hear Benny play, you hear a lot of Oscar [Peterson] and you hear what he thinks people may want. But when you hear Benny just by himself and you get to know where he is, he's coming from a place of childlike 'let's just have fun.' Which I wish he would just do."
When it's mentioned that Williams might have fallen into the journeyman role, going where she's needed, she says, "Well, I don't think I could have because I was ostracized immediately,"
Again, racism and sexism factored into the ostracism, but she added, "Another thing is [laughs] I have always gone to places and caused little troubles."
The "little troubles" Williams seemed to come from her contrary nature, starting when she was a child: "It was probably my father who instilled that in me. One time at the dinner table I was coughing, and he looked at me and said: 'Don't cough again.' So I looked him in the eye and went [coughs, then laughs]; So, I was just a problem when it came to authority."
Williams early problems with authority carried over to her professional life.
"They were minor troubles. They were things like I have to take the front off the piano, and I have to take the fall board off. And that means you have to unscrew the pin box. [laughs]. I play better with those things removed because I can play the strings, and then they'd say 'don't touch the strings. You're not supposed to play inside the piano. Don't touch the strings.' So that's the first thing I would do; I'd go out there and play the strings."
Williams also didn't mind rubbing a fellow musician the wrong way.
"There was that time I played at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. This famous trombone player came up to meI won't tell you who he was, but he played with Charles Mingusand he said, 'Don't play these tunes.' It was a Monk festival, and he handed me a long list of Monk tunes not to play because he wanted to play them. So what did I do, I thought, 'Sure, thanks for the set list.' [laughs] And I played them all."
Take that, trombone man.
When asked who she's listening to right now, Williams answers without hesitation: "Louis Prima. The Italian answer to Satchmo, Louis Armstrong. Catch him on YouTube. Listen to: [Williams sings] "Buona sera, Buona sera, Senorita, it's so hard to say goodbye to Napoli.'"
Louis Prima, (1910-1978) was an Italian-American born in New Orleans. He, like Louis Armstrong, played trumpet and sang, and he, also like Armstrong, was able to change with the times and maintain his popularity over a 40-year career. And also, in very Satchmo-like fashion, he was a consummate entertainer. For non-jazz fans, he is most famous as the voice of King Louie, the orangutan in Walt Disney's The Jungle Book, singing "I Want to Be Like You" for the soundtrack.
"This music is from the heart," Williams enthuses. "And then they do [singing again]: 'When you're smiling, when you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you.'" Williams laughs: "This is wonderful music; it's from their hearts. They played Vegas for [20-plus] years. It is so happy, and the musicianship is magnificent. And he had this great saxophonist, I can't think of his name (Sam Butera), but he was a real honker."
Origin Records released Touch, the third CD in the triptych of Williams' "new music," in July 2010.
"Touch, I think, is the culmination of this three record movement towards a new paradigm, a new way of playing or thinking; or not thinking," Williams says.
Touch, like The Art of the Piano before it, was recorded live at Seattle's Triple Door. In her liner notes to the CD, Williams says that ..."my touch on the piano is my 'singular' voice. It is one of my most outstanding and recognizable features as a pianist."
This isn't ego or braggingWilliams is telling the pure truth. The set opens with a version of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" that is so beautiful, her touch so crystalline and succinct, that it seems to stop time. At the end, the audience doesn't respond immediately. It's as if they as in the process of a collective inhale after experiencing something transcendent before they can applaud.
"If you get nothing else from Touch," Williams says, "you'll get the absolute evenness and the singular way it all fits together as a piece, like great movies do. It's like a movie, and it's a movie you can fall into. And it brings up visions of old things you remember, to me it does. It's a visual record."
When asked which work is their best, artists often say the current one, or the one that they have just released. Williams says: "It [Touch] was done when I was rather sick, and [listening to it] the first couple of times I didn't think much of it. After I kept listening to it I thought, 'There's something here.' I think it is my best."
The illness Williams refers to is her strugglewell-documented by the pianist on her websitewith hypothyroidism, a life-sapping force for which she says she is grateful. "I feel fortunate to have gone through the 'The Fix of Illness.' It can teach you so much about life, and how to appreciate so many things and appreciate what you've been given. You learn from your illness, and that started around the time of Songs for a New Century."
Which is the time that Jessica Williams began making her greatest art.