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Jessica Williams: Songs for a New Century

Dan McClenaghan By

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If you slip into Jessica Williams' web site and ride the currents of her blog, you could get the feeling that the (proudly) sixty year-old jazz pianist is something of an eccentric. Which is a good thing—in this case, an eccentric being one who has walked away from the hype, b.s. and group think with her head held high, coming up with her own take on the world and this thing called life that we're trying to navigate with as much grace as possible. Her writings reveal a woman of exceptional grace and wide-ranging intelligence, and they also reveal a woman who just might get a wild hair idea and break out her tool kit—the screw drivers and the socket set—to take apart her piano and reassemble it in a fashion that is more to her liking. An eccentric.

Williams' Songs For A New Century, a solo piano outing, reveals an evolving artist. Williams thinks it may be her best work. A re-spin of her outstanding Live at Yoshi's, Volume One (MaxJazz, 2004)—a trio affair featuring bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis—spotlights an artist making beautiful sounds and taking beautiful risks within a mainstream framework, a pianist with the joyousness and flair of Erroll Garner, the swinging virtuosity of Oscar Peterson, the depth of emotion of Bill Evans, the sly pizazz of Fats Waller and the soul of John Coltrane.

Songs for a New Century is a step forward. The set of all Williams originals, and one Sonny Rollins tune—"A Blessing in Disguise"—opens with "Empathy," an achingly beautiful ballad full of delicate, crystalline notes in a teardrop melody—a spiritually salubrious sound if there ever was one. "Toshiko," for pianist/big band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi, glows eastward sporting a Japanese aura, with Williams making koto sounds, via the tool kit lady's mechanical tweaking (?) of the piano strings. "Dear Oscar," a nod to Oscar Peterson, swings easily on a bluesy late night roll, while "Spoken Softly" sounds like a gloriously implacable truth revealed.

Amazingly, Williams recorded this life-affirming set while wrapped in the life-draining, leaden embrace of hypothyroidism, when she had energy for her art and little else.

She is evolving; but multiple spins of this gorgeous music say that Williams must be very close to the absolute pinnacle of artistic growth on the enthralling Song for a New Century. With her diagnosis and subsequent management of her disease, who knows how far she can take her musical endeavors.

Track Listing: Empathy; Toshiko; Fantasia; Song for a Baby; Blessing in Disguise; Lament; Dear Oscar; Spoken Softly; If Only.

Personnel: Jessica Williams: piano.

Title: Songs for a New Century | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Origin Records


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