Jessica Williams: Touch
Pianist Jessica Williams continues to evolve, and what a pure music lover's joy it is to hear an artist entering her sixth decade on a roll, growing and expanding her vision. Classically trained at the Peabody Conservatory, jazz-trained in the bands of Philly Joe Jones, Tony Williams, Stan Getz and others, Williams furthered her education with her ownmore than seventyalbums/CDs as a leader.
Always a high level jazzer, Williams rose to the top ranks of her craft when she started her own Red and Blue Records. Three of the label's discs stand out as vehicles toward Williams ascent to the peak of her profession: For John Coltrane (2005), Tatum's Ultimatum (2007) and Deep Monk (2008). The sets are Williams' very deeply-felt personal tributes to three giants, John Coltrane, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. These would have cemented her reputation as a singular artist. But...
In the same time frame when she was recording these tribute albums on her own label, Williams was alsofor Seattle's Origin Recordsrecording her own solo piano CDs, pure Jessica sets: Songs for a New Century (2008), where the pianist jettisoned all the hype and expectations and found her musical center, The Art of the Piano (2009), which is very similar to Songs...," but played in a live in concert rather than in studio, and now Touch.
Vocalist Tony Bennett was reportedly informed, early in his career by Pearl Bailey, that it was going to take him ten years merely to learn how to walk out on the stage. If that is true, how long does it take to learn how to touch a key on the piano? How softly or how hard to press in any given situation? How long to sustain (or not sustain) the note?
Williams "touch" on the piano is her voice. It can be elegant or down and dirty, erudite or fun-loving, and always seems full of a far-reaching, seeking spirituality. She is a rare artist whose each individual note, each touch of a key, contains clarity and beauty and wonder.
Touch, the CD, takes the sound of discovery and wonder Williams has offered up the the previously mentioned Origin Records sets and pushed it forward.
Williams feels her way into the familiar on the disc's opening cut, Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy." When she finds the melody, she expresses it with a lush harmony and a relaxed feel. She makes it sound holy, like a ruminative prayer of solemn joy and praise. The audience, at song's end, hesitates, stunned perhaps, before it breaks into into applause, a whoop from the back of the room. It may have been the most beautiful nine minutes they have ever heard.
The three other non-originals on the set get similar treatment. Coltrane's "Wise One" carries on Williams' fascination with the late saxophonist. She is his finest interpreter, capturing his otherworldly sacredness of his music. "I Cover the Waterfront" lightens the mood, with Williams dishing out flurries of notes with her right hand, a deliberate rhythm in her left. On Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," the legendary bassist/composer's tribute to saxophonist Lester Young, Williams captures the near teeth-gnashing pathos of the originalfrom Mingus Ah Um (Columbia Records, 1959)and tempers it with acceptance while still seeming to question a creator who would take such a gentle soul away.
Williams original tunes glow with joy and rapture. They seem to grow free like vibrant flowering vines, entwining rhythmic fence posts as they open up melodic and harmonic blooms. "Soldaji" sounds like an awakening from a gentle dream. "Rosa Parks" brims with a simple beauty and hope. And "Simple Things" closes the set on a buoyant note that leaves a smile.
Touch is the work of a supremely confident artist who has mastered her craft and melded it to her spiritual center, to share it. Absolutely gorgeous!