In 1742, Oxford's Holywell Music Room was built specifically for concerts with funds raised by public subscription; it is reputedly the oldest such building in Europe. Accommodating 250 persons and blessed with excellent acoustics, it has over the years hosted such musicians as Handel, Mozart, Haydn and Vivaldi. On March 10, 1996 the room hosted one Jessica Williams from the USA. Her technical facility, touch, and musicality clearly indicated her familiarity with the above-mentioned musicians, but the music she played was just as clearly jazz, of the most sparkling variety.
This is a delightful concert, characterized by Williams' solid sense of swing, class and musical taste, but spiced as well by her remarkable wit. Quotations abound, from Monk and Gershwin and Ellington, from Dubin and Warren and Sigmund Romberg; even "Mairsy Doats" makes a brief appearance.
The concert opens with an original composition, a mournful, plaintive elegy entitled "El Salvador." Schwartz and Dietz's "Alone Together" continues in a pensive mood, but in no time it breaks into a veritable, tongue-in-cheek quote-fest; I'm not sure the staid Brits knew what to make of it all. Ms. Williams' improvisation on Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "The Eulipians" is not her first to be recorded, but to my ear, it is one of her most satisfying. "Paul's Pal" is Sonny Rollins; the ditty was written as a tribute to his friend, bassist Paul Chambers. Here Ms. Williams approximates Rollins' tenor with her right hand while paying tribute with her left hand to the incomparable Mr. P.C.; it's sort of like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, easier to contemplate than to do. Listen for quotes from "Barnum and Bailey's Favorites," "Mona Lisa," "Camptown Races," "Laura," and "Easy to Remember."
McHugh and Adamson's "Too Young to Go Steady" has never been one of my favorite tunes (I'm not sure whether it's the tune that's trite, or just the lyrics), but if anyone could make me reconsider, Ms. Williams can. In her hands, it is a warm and lyrical ballad with a beautiful, ringing melody. In 8 ½ minutes, she takes time to explore the song in some detail. Inclusion of the jazz waltz "Black Diamond" is another doff of the chapeau to Kirk, who recorded the tune by pianist Milton Sealey in 1965. Ms. Williams pays further tribute to the unconventional musician by plucking the piano strings at the introduction and conclusion of the selection.
The McHugh and Fields ballad "Don't Blame Me" provides another opportunity for Williams to provide a clinic of different forms and styles of jazz piano. This is not to say that she approaches the standard clinically or with cold detachment. Quite the contrary; she seems totally involved in conveying both the content and feelings of the story she's telling. "Joyful Sorrow" is another original, a minor jazz waltz, while the title tune is Williams' rather delicate tribute to the great Fats Waller.
The CD concludes with a nostalgic but hopeful rendition of John Coltrane's "After the Rain." The ten seconds between her last chord and the onset of applause at the piece's conclusion provide some measure of the respect and appreciation of the audience for Jessica Williams' performance.