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."

Jessica Williams' Favorites, Pt. 1

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."

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 me—I won't tell you who he was, but he played with Charles Mingus—and 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.

Jessica Williams' Favorites, Pt. 2

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 bragging—Williams 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 struggle—well-documented by the pianist on her website—with 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.

The Next Step

"The idea that I'm most interested in now is going with the music and not trying to make the music do something you intellectually think up," Williams says. "But rather allowing the music to take you to the place that it wants to take you. It's in the air all around us. It's the power. That's why I live in the woods [in Washington State, at the foot of the snow-capped Cascades] because there's so much clean air and so much music and so much health up here, and you're not distracted, and it's very easy to hear the music in the air, and translate it...well, not easy. It takes a life time.

"The next step, I can't tell you what it is because I don't know what the music will do," she adds. "Every time I sit down to my instrument and play I find another piece of the puzzle that I think will work.

"You know, there've been times when I've walked out on stage and said to myself, 'I'm going to improvise for the next 50 or 60 minutes.' And that's it. That's a show. And they say: 'That was a great show.' And I say, 'That wasn't a show; that was real.'"

At this point, real is the only way Jessica William can be. And that is the truth.

Selected discography

Jessica Williams, Touch (Origin Records, 2010)

Jessica Williams, The Art of the Piano (Origin Records, 2009)

Jessica Williams, Deep Monk (Red and Blue Records, 2008)

Jessica Williams, Blood Music (Red and Blue Music, 2008)

Jessica Williams, Tatums's Ultimatum (Red and Blue records, 2008)

Jessica Williams, Songs for a New Century (Origin Records, 2008)

Jessica Williams, Billy's Theme (Origin Records, 2006)

Jessica Williams, Live at Yoshi's, Volume 2 (MAXJAZZ, 2005)

Jessica Williams, For John Coltrane (Red and Blue Records, 2005)

Jessica Williams, The Real Deal (Hep Records, 2004)

Jessica Williams, Live at Yoshi's, Volume 1 MAXJAZZ, 2004)

Jessica Williams, All Alone (MAXJAZZ, 2003)

Jessica Williams, This Side Up (MAXJAZZ, 2002)

Photo Credits

All Photos Courtesy of Jessica Williams


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