One of the giants of the jazz piano since her solo breakthrough in the late 1980s, Jessica Williams has technique on the level of Oscar Peterson, a wit inspired by Thelonious Monk, a solid sense of swing and a very fertile imagination. She gives the impression she can play anything that occurs to her ? depending on the setting, the way she feels at the moment, and the way her life is evolving.
On Songs for a New Century, Williams performs eight new originals and Sonny Rollins' "Blessing in Disguise" as unaccompanied solos. "Empathy" is a relaxed and thoughtful opener, while "Toshiko" creates an Asian ambience, with Williams somehow creating the sound of a koto, probably due to some expert playing from inside the piano. "Fantasia" has a beautiful classical-type melody, while "Song For A Baby" is the type of jazz waltz Oscar Peterson might have played, albeit with Williams' sense of soul and lyricism. With a bit of exposure this song could become a jazz standard.
How fun to hear Rollins' "Blessing in Disguise" again, a number rarely performed since the tenor's mid-'60s version for the Impulse label. "Lament" comes across somewhat happier than its title suggests but does contain some of the brooding quality in a Mal Waldron performance. "Dear Oscar" is a blues à la Oscar Peterson, while the spiritual ballad "Spoken Softly" and the simple yet effective "If Only" both take their time.
This memorable program offers no barnburners as Williams obviously doesn't need to prove her brilliance. Instead, here she concentrates on honest feelings, melodic improvising, and imbuing her beautiful music with meaning.