Although piled high with critical accolades, awards, and grants over her nearly five-decade career, pianist Jessica Williams remains a somewhat obscure if Herculean talent. Seldom performing outside of the west coast, and most often in solo, the Baltimore native is known to discerning audiences primarily through her vast discography and sheaf of original compositions. Nominated twice for a Grammy for best instrumental album, Jessica should get a third nod with The Art of the Piano, recorded live at Seattle's Triple Door and released this summer on Origin.
The piano is unique among instruments as it can produce the most intimate single lines as well as conjure a full orchestra or marching band. Take 88 keys and a virtuoso artist (composer and arranger) like Jessica Williams, and the piano's possibilities seem endless. Williams herself, in extensive liner notes for The Art of the Piano, traces her most recent development to an "ahaha" moment upon seeing an online video of Glenn Gould playing Bach, a moment that reconnected her to her classical training at the Peabody Conservatory. "I discovered anew that the piano is a veritable bouquet, a living organism capable of moving people to shouts of delirium or heartfelt tears...I'm, in fact, obsessed with the proper voicing, and the regulation of each note, and the perfect ?human' tuning..."
This obsession with voicings (and touch) sets Williams apart from most of her contemporaries and younger generations, and is perhaps what makes her the ultimate solo artist, so apparent in this set of six original compositions and two astonishing arrangements (Satie's "First Gymnopedie" and Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament"). Her admiration for not only Gould but also Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett is never far from her keyboard. Sharing Jarrett's feel for the blues, her opening "Triple Door Blues" ripples with a lazy regret and restrained joy of rebirth; the floral cascades of "Esperanza" suggest the grandeur of old Spain as portrayed by Albinez and Granados, even Andreas Segovia. The epic "Love and Hate" (nearly 13 minutes), suggesting McCoy Tyner interpreting Debussy, assigns a different nuance of emotion to each of those 88 keys, the darkest fear, the deepest longing, the softest caress. "Elaine" strangely suggests "Skylark;" "Prophet" flows like a familiar hymn taken apart and reassembled as an offering to the Gods; "Diane" brings back a blues sensibility layered with harp-like cascades and tremolos.
The two "covers" are exquisite. Satie's "First Gymnopedie" has been fair game for pop and jazz artists from Blood, Sweat and Tears to Yusef Lateef, and here Jessica provides the perfect bassline accompaniment for the ethereal melody, more syncopated than Satie intended yet respect for the original never wavers; it is one of the most stunning compositions in any genre. Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament" is a majestic incantation, pounding, fluttering, testifying.
Founding Red and Blue Recordings a few years ago, Jessica Williams has also benefited from her ongoing relationship with John Bishop's Origin Records, releasing the magnificent solo Songs for a New Century in 2008 and now the Art of the Piano. Although describing Bill Evans' solo work, Jessica's own words seem an apt testament to her own music:
"...it was about touch and song and drama and pain and joy. It was about sorrow and romance and longing...introspective, quiet, simple, tragic, mellifluous, delicately lovely beyond any words."