Jessica Williams: Musical Truths

Dan McClenaghan By

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Pianist Jessica Williams begins a free-wheeling and fascinating conversation with a fan by thanking him for the kind words he has spoken about her music. Then she adds: "But you don't always have to say kind words, you know, as long as you always say the truth."

It's advice that is very much in character with the artist who has, in the past few years, been on a quest for musical truths, as well as for peace and love, the words she may write on one of her CDs if requested to sign.

Williams is intelligent and funny. She laughs often, and well. And for an artist of such magical musical eloquence, such breath-taking clarity and depth, she is surprisingly down-to-earth and plainspoken. A chat with the pianist is a relaxed affair, with a woman who sounds supremely comfortable in her own skin. It's sort of like talking to the nice—but very opinionated and maybe a bit crazy—neighbor lady over the back yard fence.

Williams has had a long and successful career in jazz. She played in the bands of Philly Joe Jones, the drummer in Miles Davis' first great quintet with Stan Getz, Leroy Vinegar, Tony Williams (of Davis' second great quintet fame) and many more. She has also led her own trios, and has released more than 70 albums under her name. She is a dedicated though underappreciated musician who has been able to wrestle a living out of a competitive and male-dominated profession. Now, in her sixth decade, she has tossed the hype and set up her own record label. She records only what—and when—she wants to record. She books her own concerts. Her self-reliance and her refusal to "play the game" has resulted in an evolutionary leap in her artistry, one that has lifted her from the ranks of very talented jazz pianists up to the highest level of the particular art.

Chapter Index
  1. The Old Music
  2. Breakout CDs
  3. Jessica Williams' Favorites, Pt. 1
  4. Little Troubles
  5. Jessica Williams' Favorites, Pt. 2
  6. Touch
  7. The Next Step

The Old Music

Into the early years of the new millennium, Williams' music could be accurately described as mainstream, in the tradition of Red Garland, Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson. The tail end of her mainstream/old music days included a series of four fine CDs on the MAXJAZZ label, released early- to mid-2000s. In that same time frame, she released a handful of recordings, solo and trio, on her own Red and Blue Records, with stunningly beautiful dedications to Art Tatum, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk to go along with more general jazz releases. She was, at this time, in the process of moving away from the jazz world and what she calls her old music. Indeed, she seems to have little interest in talking about her older sound. She seems intent on moving ahead, away from the traditional jazz milieu.

Of that move from the way of jazz, Williams says, "I had lost too much in the jazz world, because it was too competitive. It was male dominated and sexist and racist and too fraught with dangers to continue to do that. I just had to get out of that whole situation. And first, I had to get out of nightclubs. They'll kill you. They'll kill anybody."

Williams describes the night club world as toxic, with the smoking, drinking, the "doing the hang" to pick up new gigs.

"The nightclub scene and the old music is music from a younger kid having fun. Hey, you know, girls just wanna have fun. I just wanted to play fast, and I was a little crazy, and I was still drinking and smoking," she says, although she does neither now. "I was doing the hang with the guys, and we'd go there lit, and we made some wild music, we really did. I think it's music that has validity and it has its purpose. But I don't think it's music that I'll ever listen to again."

She pauses, then adds with a laugh, "Well, I may, I don't know, when I get to be 80 ... The music I love the most is the three albums we're talking about."

Those three records: Songs for a New Century (2008), The Art of the Piano (2009), and Touch (2010), all on Origin Records.

When asked how she makes a living without the night club shows or her move away from major labels and the hype of the music world, Williams replies, "I get by, but I don't make a whole lot of money."

"The only reason I make a living where other musicians can't, is I do paper work," she adds. "I consider myself a clerical worker. I spend eight to ten hours on the Internet daily, filling out forms, making sure I police different corporations. It's all lawyers. Having lawyers to go against lawyers to make sure that I get my money from the DRMs—download rights management and from sale of records—I don't get a penny from Amazon, and that doesn't seem right to me."

Williams has augmented her income from CD sales from her website and her shows by applying for grants.

"One thing I did was I said, 'Well there's grants here'; and you know what? I got every one I applied for. I applied for the Guggenheim and I got that."

Williams' "clerical work," her grants, her CD sales from her Red and Blue Records, and the small shows that she books herself in private homes, beats "doing the hang." And, Williams finds, she is at peace.

Breakout CDs

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."



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