Jessica Williams

The Art of the Piano



iTunes - $9.99

MUSIC REVIEW BY John Sunier, Audiophile Audition


A fine environment - psychologically and acoustically - allows Williams to make one of her finest recordings yet. 5*****

Such a title might seem excessively self-promotional with most other jazz pianists on the scene today, but not so with Jessica Williams. She's one of the nation's musical treasures and one of the most distinctively original jazz pianists to be heard anywhere. This is her third CD for Origin, recorded live at the Triple Door in Seattle just this past April. In the notes she speaks of her audience being among the best she's experienced - "never loud, raucous or challenging." The fine environment - psychologically and acoustically - allows Williams to make one of her finest recordings yet.

Seven of the eight tracks are originals, along with Erik Satie's First Gymnopedie. (It's nice the way many jazz performers are dropping into their programs fairly straight or somewhat improvised classical selections, with no excuses.) Jessica Williams' notes with the CD are some of the most honest and revealing performer notes I have ever read. She mentions how some years ago she changed her typical jazz pianist's life by becoming free of alcohol and tobacco, moving more of her playing to the concert stage instead of nightclubs, and seeking and receiving grants from sources such as the National Endowment. She also does many of her tunes at a more deliberate tempo, and mostly eschews the standard jazz pianist's style of comping with the left hand while rushing finger-busting runs in the right.

But not long ago she had an even more life-altering experience: seeing a video of Glenn Gould performing Bach's Goldberg Variations. She hadn't been fond of the music of Bach but watching Gould brought her back to her days studying classical music at the Peabody Conservatory. She realized she was not just a jazz musician but a pure musician, and didn't have to follow special rules about how to play, look, act and think. She now sits low to the keyboard in a specially-designed chair, as Gould did. She uses the soft pedal frequently, feeling that often two strings in the midrange and treble of the piano sound much better than three, and often performs with the lid closed or only open a crack. She equates the use of three strings in modern pianos to the excesses of the Lisztian era of trying to get virtuoso sounds - making the piano into an orchestra (which it is not), and also mentions the inability for three strings to always stay in tune, as they generate conflicting transient overtones. (Now that's an audiophile observation if I every heard one!) She is very precise about how her piano is tuned and adjusted and uses her own expert technician. She speaks of disliking many Steinways for their growling bass and glassy treble. The 9-foot Steinway concert grand at The Triple Door was carefully adjusted to be neither a "screamer nor a growler." (So perhaps my frequent complaints about the annoying sound of many Steinways on recordings is more due to the tuning of the instrument in question rather than Steinways in general or the recording approach!)





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