'04 is a banner year for Jessica Williams, with MaxJazz releasing Live at Yoshi's and Hep Jazz issuing The Real Deal , a solo album that Williams recorded live in the comfort of her own home, in the fall of '00. The two records demonstrate just how far Williams has come in the past four years. While there are some stylistic similaritiesa clear penchant for Monk's idiosyncrasies and a firm sense of swing, there is also one major difference. In the years since The Real Deal was recorded, Williams has become a little more comfortable in her own skin it seems, and this more relaxed and affable approach has clearly affected the way she interprets standards, as she does on both recordings.
On The Real Deal Williams shows a strong disposition to playing musical non sequiturs. Amidst the tender thematic development of Errol Garner's "Misty," Williams keeps throwing in broad flourishes that feel perhaps a little forced, showy and unnecessarily dramatic. While she usually settles into a groove, the songs often begin with time being introduced more loosely, and it is here where this odd quirk makes itself most evident. But even when she is keeping time with her left hand, as she does on "My Romance," she tends to throw in these musical flurries, as if she suddenly becomes over-excited, then realizes it and reels herself in.
Still, there is no question that Williams is a fine interpreter, and it's interesting to hear her in a completely unpressured environment where the normal issues of time and money for the studio are not an issue. That she should choose three Monk tunes, and contribute two original compositions that are clear paeans to him, should come as no surprise. Her version of "Teo" is a highlight of the set, with Williams' right hand implying the swing while she solos with her left, a clear reversal of the norm that is highly effective. "Round Midnight" features an introduction rife with her flurries of notes, but this time it seems to work more comfortably, as she leads into a tender reading of the theme that nevertheless retains some of Monk's quirkiness. All that being said, one cannot dispute how swing pervades all her work, and in some ways it is no more evident than when completely exposed in a solo context.
While it appears that Williams may have been simply filled with too many ideas trying to find their way from head to hands, The Real Deal is still an enjoyable listen that sheds real light on how an artist can develop and grow over a relatively short period of time. It's all part of the process, and Williams has always been about developing her craft and, according to her liner notes, her life. Most musicians' personalities are reflected in the way they play, and it would seem that Williams has become considerably less intense over the past four years.
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