Ever since the death of John Coltrane more than 40 years ago, jazz musicians of every ilk have attempted to get at the core of his sound, the key to its immutable power and transcendent spirit. Aside from Coltrane bandmate McCoy Tyner, perhaps Jessica Williams on Freedom Trane
comes as close to the source as a piano player is likely to get.
Four of the eight tunes come from the Coltrane songbook, but the other half were written by Williams, a very effective way for her to personalize her homage to the master while avoiding the urge to simply repeat his ideas. "The Seeker" states explicitly an admirer's search for an answer to the riddle that is Coltrane. It echoes many of the familiar themes but allows Williams to stretch her formidable talents to create something new.
Coltrane's dirge, "Lonnie's Lament," is given a respectful treatment, with especially sensitive support by bassist Dave Captein on both bowed and pizzicato bass and drummer Mel Brown on both mallets and brushes. With such reliable colleagues, Williams is free to explore keyboard harmonies and single-note excursions. The title track is a gospel-tinged original that steams along the track like the proverbial, well-oiled locomotive. Coltrane and Sonny Rollins co-wrote "Paul's Pal," a playful melody that has Williams whimsically repeating notes, phrases and variations until the listener is bound to smile with delight.
Perhaps most telling of all is the ballad "Prayer and Meditation," Williams' expression of the spiritual essence that was so central to Coltrane's life. In her ringing chords and searching flights into the keyboards upper reaches, she successfully reveals the secret that has thwarted so many. Her composition "Just Words" follows with some bluesy reflections. "Naima," easily the most familiar tune here, is done with great care and precision?beginning in a ballad tempo, moving to mid-tempo swing and back again?allowing the pianist a wide scope of solo variations. Williams finishes with Coltrane's exquisite 1965 composition "Welcome," another spiritual exploration given a finely-wrought, shimmering solo piano performance by Williams.
A legendary player in the Bay Area and in Seattle with nearly 40 recordings as a leader, Williams is virtually, and sadly, unknown to folks who never venture to the West Coast. Like Coltrane, her performances are electrifying, even transcendent, as she merges technical prowess, sheer power, confidence and range of emotion to create an exciting concert experience. In this sense, "The Seeker" was a logical choice for her latest release. Recorded in December 2007, it remains a mystery why it was not released until March 2011. We hope her next project is not so long in fruition.