Jazz CD Reviews

Jessica Williams, piano – Touch – Origin Records

The piano is no longer a percussion instrument for her - she sees it as foremost a symphonic stringed instrument with an enormous palette of colors.

Published on August 9, 2010

Jessica Williams, piano – Touch – Origin Records

Jessica Williams, piano – Touch – Origin Records 82566, 56.5 min. *****:

Pianist Jessica Williams was recorded live at The Triple Door in Seattle in this eight-track CD of four of her original compositions plus one each from Gershwin, Mingus, Coltrane and Johnny Green. I’ve long felt she is one of the very finest jazz pianists today – a jazz equivalent of Martha Argerich in the classical world. And her notes in the booklet are some of the most interesting notes from a performer I have ever read with an album.

Williams goes into some detail about the two grand pianos in her life – A Steinway D at the Triple Door and a Yamaha Conservatory Concert grand at her home. Both are kept adjusted to perfection by her piano technician Ryan Sowers. She says the playing she provides on this album would be completely impossible with an out-of-tune instrument, and goes into the practice of performers such as Glenn Gould and Bill Evans of unconsciously singing along with their playing to somehow force a recalcitrant piano into proper tune. She has her technician adjust the pianos to be exactly how she wants them. She even stated (somewhere else than in these particular notes) that when really properly tuned and voiced American Steinways no longer have the brittle upper register sound usually associated with them.

Williams says she has written 300 compositions of her own, and selected four for this album. She also says the piano is no longer a percussion instrument for her – she sees it as foremost a symphonic stringed instrument with an enormous palette of colors.  Her touch on the keyboard demonstrates this clearly and is quite identifiable.  A fine example of this is the longest track on the album – her lush, slow and thoughtful treatment of the gorgeous I Loves You Porgy, from Porgy and Bess. That one has a passage with her playing in the very highest treble of the Steinway keyboard, and she’s right – there’s none of that steely sound. The unaccompanied piano really puts the performer in the spotlight – there’s nothing to hide behind. The best albums of many of the finest jazz pianists have been their piano solo sessions. Williams refers in her notes to “a lot of the new music – accompanied by unintelligible piano miseries and drum sophistry, all underpinned by fallacious bass playing” being a good reason to pursue a career in solo piano.

Rosa Parks is a swinging little waltz honoring the civil rights pioneer, but whoever Gail is, Gail’s Song shows her to be a bit more sophisticated, perhaps glamorous and unpredictable.  Williams’ treatment of I Cover the Waterfront reminded me of Art Tatum with its breathtaking runs up and down the keyboard. Her closing track – Simple Things - is just that, with a lovely long-lined melody that sounds almost familiar, although it’s not. Williams doesn’t have to throw in classical quotations to demonstrate that she’s had thorough classical training; one can hear it in all her improvisations and compositions.

TrackList: I Loves You Porgy, Soldaji, Rosa Parks, Wise One, Gail’s Song, I Cover the Waterfront, Goodbye Porkpie Hat, Simple Things

 - John Henry




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