Candid CCD 79763

Jessica Williams (piano)

Recorded 10th March 1996

El Salvador / Alone Together / The Eulipians / Paul’s Pal / Too Young to Go Steady / Black Diamond / Don’t Blame Me / Joyful Sorrow / Ain’t Misbehavin’ / After the Rain

One of the saddest stories in Jazz is the fate of Jessica Williams. Jessica, who died in 2022 was rated by many, including Dave Brubeck, as one of the finest pianists in jazz, and yet was hardly known. She was never contracted to major companies and never received the assistance of powerful PR departments. She produced many of her albums and she had the reputation of being difficult to deal with. I met her at a jazz club in Seattle, she was not difficult to deal with, and we talked about her visits to England. She did not appreciate the fees on offer from Ronnie Scott’s. However, she did have a reasonable experience with the Candid label run by Alan Bates who produced this album. The album was recorded at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford in March 1996. The historic venue, opened in 1748, has featured visits by Mozart, Handel, Haydn and Vivaldi. The great audio engineer Malcolm Addey recorded the Williams’ concert and mastered the result.

In her early days Jessica played with Philly Jo Jones and Charlie Rouse and worked at Keystone Korner in San Francisco. She started to believe that the nightclub environment was unhealthy for her. She started to play concerts and offered house concerts. She made a couple of tours to the UK, but health issues curtailed her travels and meant that she was confined to the US west coast. Spinal problems meant that she had to stop playing and she died in 2022.

Like all great pianists, Jessica William’s is better heard playing solo. Her inspiration comes from the giants of the music, in particular Monk, Miles and Coltrane. Jessica is not just technically accomplished and gifted; she is also witty. The title tune ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ is the best interpretation that I know of the piece. She recomposes the piece and adds her thoughts. The beauty of her composition ‘El Salvador’ is a pointer to Jessica’s concern with political injustice. This is not unusual; the sleeve notes of her albums are often critical of the lack of spirituality in modern life.

The whole album is a tribute to the beauty of the piano. The piano that night was a magnificent instrument and Jessica glories in the sound from the high keys at her right and the thunderous bass keys at her left. Not content with these conventional keys, she goes inside the piano to extract different sounds. Her pleasure at playing is obvious, especially with the space she conjures between her notes. Her deep underlying focus has a clear purpose that never seems insincere.

The choice of ‘The Eulipians’ shows her knowledge of the more obscure corners of jazz. It is a magnificent piece by Roland Kirk. No one but Kirk seems to understand the title. The piece has a stately quality, emphasised in Jessica’s interpretation. Revelling in the tonality, the dynamics she employs are spellbinding.

Choosing ‘Paul’s Pal’ is a tribute to Sonny Rollins. Jessica explains that her right hand is Sonny Rollins, and her left is the magnificent bass of Paul Chambers. The jaunty tune lifts the concert.

However, melancholy is never far away from Jessica; it is there in Coltrane’s ‘After The Rain’ and in her own piece dedicated to Bill Evans’ ‘Joyful Sorrow’. Her knowledge of the piano music of Debussy and Ravel impinges on her playing. But she can move from that to the joy she shows at the Fats Waller tribute which is saturated with reinterpretation and punchy stride piano.

Jessica Williams always insisted that she was more influenced by horn players like Coltrane and Davis but, nevertheless, all her piano influences are there: Monk, Bill Evans and Art Tatum leave their mark. The whole album is suffused with the clarity of her own style.

Hopefully, somewhere there is a treasure house of Jessica’s albums that are well preserved and are waiting to be discovered by people in the future who will wonder why this great pianist did not receive greater recognition in her lifetime.