Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Jessica Williams – A Pianist with Taste, Touch and Temerity

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles was prompted to put this piece together by the arrival of the correspondence that closes it.

I first “met” Jessica around 1980. This was back in the days when one could kill a few minutes waiting for a business appointment or a luncheon while perusing the local record store.

Usually privately-owned and operated, every community in southern California seem to have one and some of these Mom-and-Pop stores even had a Jazz section.

It was during one such diversions that I noticed an LP in the cut-out bin by Jessica Jennifer Williams entitled Orgonomic Music [Clean Cuts CC703]. On the back of the album sleeve was the following quotation by Wilhelm Reich:

"Love, work and knowledge are the well-springs of our life. They should also govern it.”

I didn’t know who Reich was, nor did I know anything about “Jessica Jennifer Williams” and the only musician in the sextet featured on the album that I was [barely] familiar with was trumpet player Eddie Henderson.

But what the heck, Philip Elwood of The San Francisco Examiner said of Jessica that she was a devotee of Reich’s whose sentiments I agreed with, the LP was only a buck, so I gave it a shot.

Boy, am I glad I did. I’ve been listening to everything I can get my hands on by Jessica ever since.

However, it wasn’t until 1992, thanks to a fortuitous business trip to San Francisco, that I had the opportunity to hear Jessica in person as a part of pianist Dick Whittington’s on-going Maybeck Recital Hall series.

I “stayed close” to Jessica’s music in the 1990’s thanks to my association with Philip Barker, the owner of Jazz Focus Records for whom Jessica made a number of recordings including her Arrival CD which has the distinction of being the very first disc issued by Philip’s label [JFCD001].

Thanks to a tip from Gene Lees in one of his JazzLetters, I was also able to score one of the limited edition [1,000] Joyful Sorrow compact discs that Blackhawk Records issued as her solo piano tribute to the late, Bill Evans.

It was recorded at The Jazz Station, Carmel, CA on September 15, 1996 on the 16th anniversary of Bill’s death.

Sadly, too, The Jazz Station in Carmel is no more, but Joyful Sorrow endures as just about my all-time favorite Jessica recording.

Thankfully, Jessica has subsequently released quite a number of solo piano and trio Jazz recordings, many of which are available as audio CD’s and Mp3 downloads.

Jessica is a powerful and pulsating pianist.  He music literally “pops” out at the listener it’s so full of energy and enthusiasm.

She records many solo piano albums, a format which can sometimes be a recipe for self-indulgence and excessive displays of technique.  But Jessica’s music is always tasteful and informed. You can hear the influences from the Jazz tradition in her playing, but you also hear innovative probing and forays into her unique conception of what she is trying to say about herself and how she hears the music.

Her touch on the instrument is such that she makes the piano SOUND! It rings clear and resonates as it only can in the hands of a masterful pianist.

As Grover Sales, the distinguish author and lecturer on Jazz has commented:

“Jessica Williams belongs to that exclusive group Count Basie dubbed "the poets of the piano" that includes Roger Kellaway, Sir Roland Hanna, Ellis Larkins, Jaki Byard, Bill Mays, Alan Broadbent, Cedar Walton, the late Jimmy Rowles and of course, Bill Evans. All share in common a thorough working knowledge of classic piano literature from pre-Bach to contemporary avant garde as well as the classic jazz tradition from Scott Joplin to the present.

All developed an astonishing and seemingly effortless technique that enabled them to venture anywhere their fertile imaginations wished to take them. All take to heart the dictum of Jelly Roll Morton in his epic 1938 interview for the Library of Congress: ‘No pianist can play jazz unless they try to give the imitation of a band.’

 And for all of their varied influences from Earl Hines to Bill Evans and beyond, all are instantly identifiable—unique in the literal sense of this often misused word.”

Writing in the insert booklet to Jessica’s Maybeck Hall CD [Concord CCD-4525], Jeff Kaliss notes:

“It's all there in the first track. Within a few choruses, Jessica Williams shows her hand, or hands: the harmonies in seconds (hit way off to the side of the piano), the punchy attack, the dust-devils in the upper octaves, the nutty quotes. It's familiar Jessica, but she's got plenty up her sleeve for the rest of this remarkable entry in the Maybeck menagerie. …

She came to my awareness as a word-of-mouth legend, a Baltimore-bred genius whose history and personality were said to be as mysterious and unpredictable as her keyboard inventions. As soon as I got to hear her, I was into the reality of her spontaneous magic and not much concerned with the legend. …

[She] has remained a best-kept secret … commanding awe and quiet in the clubs she visited … [her playing] filled with energy and imagination.”

One gets more about her sense of “energy and imagination” when one reads the following notes that Jessica wrote about herself and her music for her Intuition CD [Jazz Focus JFCD 010]:

“I'm occasionally asked where I studied to learn to do what I do; who taught me, what "tricks" are involved, what secrets enable me, how does the process occur... how does one "distill magic out of the air?" The truth is that there are no practice techniques, no miracle drugs, no mantras, no short-cuts to creativity. I tell them that I've played piano since I was four, that I've played jazz since I was twelve, that I've never taken another job doing anything except what I've always known I should be doing in this life: playing music. And maybe that's a part of the answer, if indeed there is one. It's about Castenada's PATH, Campbell's BLISS; you follow it no matter where it leads, and over many years you learn to control it, channel it, allow it to happen.

You become the bow; the arrow is the gift. You never fully own it, just as you can never explore all of its depths, because it springs from the infinite possibilities within you. In this realm, your only ally, your only guide, is intuition. It is seeing instead of looking, knowing instead of believing, being instead of doing. It is Coltrane on the saxophone, Magic Johnson on the court, Alice Walker on the printed page; it is the primary intuition of "right-brained" activity, the birthing of idea into existence.

Perhaps it cannot be taught, but it certainly can be shared...and it is in the sharing that we all experience the best parts of ourselves. We instinctively intuit our organic truth; when we learn to live it, our planet could be paradise.

Your dreams are your sacred truth. …”

You can listen to Jessica’s quite stunning pianism on the audio track of the following video tribute to her on which she performs Alone Together from the Joyful Sorrow Bill Evans tribute CD.

As to Jessica’s temerity, let alone downright courage, it’s all here in the following notice which she sent out recently to her fans.

I hope you’ll heed and help Jessica in her time of need.

Dear friends, critics, fans, friends of fans, anyone who loves my music or at least has enjoyed it:
You can opt to send personal checks or money orders to
·  Jessica Williams
·  PO Box 2391
·  Olympia, WA 98507
·  Please make checks payable to Jessica Williams
Every dollar counts and is deeply appreciated.
I CAN NO LONGER PLAY THE PIANO. NOR CAN I WALK, SLEEP, EAT WELL, STAND OR SIT. MY PAIN IS INTRACTABLE, AND 30mg daily of Vicodin (NORCO) does very little to cut it. 35 YEARS AGO I had a disc surgery (a Laminectomy, L5-S1) but many years of flying and playing music have taken their toll. I am in DIRE NEED OF RADICAL SPINAL SURGERY. MY SURGEON IS DR RICHARD ROONEY AT THE NEW MADISON ST POLYCLINIC.
This is NOT a solicitation for help to pay for the surgery as I HAVE INSURANCE: This request for donations is for the time AFTER surgery, the 6 months to perhaps a year that I won't be able to play or perform. Instead, I'll be doing physical therapy, pain management, and recuperation.
Without a spinal operation I face trunk and leg paralysis, the possible loss of renal function, and constant intractable pain. If it progresses up the spine and reaches the thoracic and cervical spine, I will lose all movement or sensation in my arms and hands. I have moderate scoliosis which increases the possibility of this happening.
Fortunately I have medical coverage. This request for donations is for the time AFTER surgery. It may be a year or more before I can play again, or it could be months - I won't know until it's done.
My surgeon - http://www.polyclinic.com/richard-rooney-md-facs - has decided to do a lateral-entry cage-fusion of L5, L4 and S1. I have had other opinions but I've chosen the premier neurosurgeon in this state (WA), and my age - 64 - rules out fancy but still unperfected alternatives like Pro-Disc©. My surgery will be scheduled soon, probably for some time in LATE JULY or EARLY AUGUST of 2012. (I presently have an viral upper-bronchial infection, so we need to wait until that clears.)
I'll be in the hospital for about 10 days, and then recuperating for 6 months to a year. I feel very lucky and very secure to have chosen the great surgeon who will do the procedure, making it possible for me to get back to my life's work.
I am so happy I can give back through my music. The music that awaits is why I am here.
And THAT, friends, is why I'm asking for help. I know that the people who love my music are the kindest, gentlest people in the world.
But a lot of us tend not to be billionaires. I, for one.
I need your help.
I'm sure that the results will be positive. My surgeon is the best there is, an artist of neurosurgery. He loves my music. I have a lot of NEW MUSIC TO MAKE.
Please make a donation of any size that you can afford. Each of you who makes a donation will get a signed copy of my newest CD for OriginArts - my personal favorite - Songs of Earth. And you'll get your name included in the drop-down "Life Savers Menu" on this donations page.
And if you ORDER MY CDs, that'll help too, and you can do that HERE. Every order and every extra dollar helps, as I can no longer play or pay the bills for a while.
Thank you from my heart, with peace, sanity, love, and freedom, Jessica
DONATE PLEASE!!!  You can use paypal or any credit cards: go to
A message from good friend and fellow pianist and composer Richard Rodseth:
Dear friends,
Some of you have attended or played at house concerts I have hosted in my home. Some of my happiest
and proudest moments.
I was introduced to the concept by pianist Jessica Williams, and since 2005 she has enthralled listeners in my living room once or twice a year, most recently on March 17, her birthday.
I'm sorry to report that Jessica needs our help, and is not well enough to play for us at this time. It would mean a great deal to me if you would read her heartfelt request at the following link and support her if you can:
Whether you purchase one or more of her wonderful CDs (which make excellent gifts), or are able to make a donation, you will have supported a wonderful artist who has touched many with her beautiful music.
Thanks so much, Richard - P.S. I apologize if you receive this message more than once. Feel free to share it with others.
See MRI/DICOM scans of my L5/L4 compression/degradation and my scoliosis and disc deterioration here:
For removal from this list, click here:
I wish you happiness, wisdom, peace, and above all, HEALTH. Stay well and love each other, Jessica