TOUCH and where it leads

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Related: Disassembling the Piano / Approaching the piano / Choosing to buy a 7'6" Yamaha Conservatory Grand / How I and my piano have bonded / About performing

Touch inside

Above: All design and artwork by John Bishop @

Where it leads, where it's from

Someone in the UK wrote to me recently, asking when I was going to start playing "the old happy party music again." This isn't the first time someone has inquired, via or otherwise, where that old foot-tappin', finger snappin', very familiar music had gone, that music that was so much fun to drink to and take drugs to and engage in various exploits to. That music became wallpaper for unrestrained bacchanal. "Paint the town." "Trip the light fantastic". "Puttin' on the Ritz". "Play me that ole jelly roll".

Many years have passed since I've seen myself as a part of the "jazz world". I and it never saw eye to eye on a wide range of things, and, as I grew older and stopped participating in the "universal hang" necessary to "get gigs", I fell off one map after another. I stopped drinking, gave up smoking. I wrote essays and poetry, I learned Internet protocols including XHTML, and I became healthier, both mentally and physically. At the piano, I played more thoughtfully and deeper than I had ever thought possible.

So, disconnected from the center of jazz partly by choice and largely by the exclusionary policies of too many of its participants, I followed my own very clear inner muse. I wrote hundreds of pieces and recorded nearly as many discs. I watched (and listened) in muted amazement as poorly equipped, marginally talented technicians became well-known albeit short-lived jazz stars, propelled by the money of investment bankers and bureaucratic administrators who would occasionally decide to make a CD or put on a "jazz FEST", their equivalent of an alcohol-drenched beach-barbeque, replete with scantily-clad groupies and an inner circle of politically-correct participants. Having stopped drinking and smoking so many years ago, I just didn't "fit in". The old adage "most deals are cut at the bar" is an unsavory truth, and one I won't and can't bend to.

So, when I heard people say, "I hate jazz", I'd say, "I can't blame you", because every time I turned on a jazz radio station, I was very very sorry. You can't just up and listen to Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Monk's CrissCross or Gould's second version of Bach's Goldberg Variations and expect to bear the play-lists concocted by radio program directors with degrees in business administration.

For awhile, "jazz" was a bad word altogether for me. The word's most obvious derivations (jas, jis, jism, jissom) alone are off-putting. And "jazz" came, over the years of this music's undeniable decline, to represent discrimination, androcentric peer-bonding, cliques, and fashionable, mean-spirited "hipness". Its pervasive and stubbornly persistent unwelcoming attitude towards women, Jews, gays, and other ethnic groups had always deeply disturbed me, and I had no time for any kind of prejudice in my life, having played with Philly Joe Jones and having watched him enter venues - where he played his royal music - through their kitchen or rear service entrance. I always went in with him, through whatever door he had to go through. I loathe prejudice (it's a vile illness), and the "jazz world" allows too much of it to flourish, unchallenged, just beneath the transparent patina of its elitist self-certainty.

If the jazz industry were Microsoft, Apple would have had a 97-percent market-share years ago.

Recently, a friend told me that she had tried to get her co-workers to attend one of my concerts. When the folks asked what kind of music I played, and she had replied "jazz", all of her co-workers - without exception - had replied with variations on ick or yuck. And then there's my "YouTube experiment." I removed every single incidence of the word "jazz" from my YouTube page, and, in the first week of "testing", received double the page views.

But there is no way an artist can play and love an art form so much and just stop playing it or stop being influenced by the memories of it. It would be baby, bath water, and eighth notes, all at once, into the recycle bin. There are other ways to grow and change besides the amputation of such rich and valued experiences. I have been searching for it for many years now, with some success.

This is my time... to bring every single talent I have to the table, my time to integrate all of the gifts that I've been given by the Creator, my time to use these gifts in ways that I never thought possible before. I'm a musician, and a pianist, and a composer. I'm also a thinker, a writer, and I love life with a grand passion.

Being a THINKER means NOT buying into the hype, NOT accepting the party-line, and NOT allowing what's in vogue or what's hot today to influence what we believe or how we achieve our goals. Part of the hype, the party-line, the in-vogue and politically-correct lie that has ruled jazz for way too long has been that women and minorities and white folks are not qualified to play "genuine jazz music." In 2010, there has been an increase in both the incidence and the virulence of this attitude.

In my world, we are all one. My audiences obviously love my Music, and they love Herbie Hancock, and they love David Sanborn, Kenny Gorelick, George Benson, Keith Jarrett, Diana Krall and Miles Davis. "Purist" jazzophiles have trashed them all as sell-outs and turncoats. And no one cares.

It was important for me to make an album that, even while being influenced by my prior experiences, would be accessible and enjoyable to a very wide range of people. My last three CDs for OriginArts have been steps towards mainstream life. Billy's Theme, Songs for a New Century, and the recent and surprisingly lauded The Art of the Piano have all shown the direction, with increasing certainty. My composition Love and Hate spells out the direction in stark relief. Touch is another step as more chains are broken and more connections are forged.

Again asked "is it jazz?" the answer comes easily and with a degree of pride and relief: no one cares.


above photo by Jessica Williams (my piano)

Liner notes for TOUCH by Jessica Williams / Label: OriginArts

This program was recorded in its entirety on January 7, 2010, at The Triple Door in Seattle. The "Trip" has a 280-seat capacity and is converted from what was once a movie theatre into what is now a dinner theatre and concert house. It has a fine Steinway D - that's a nine-footer - which has made it my favorite place on the West Coast to play. I recorded my last release for Origin Arts, "The Art of the Piano", on the same piano in the same venue.

I have two pianos in my life at present that afford me the pleasure of great intimacy and profound response: the aforementioned Steinway 'D' at The Trip, and the 7-foot, 6-inch 1984 Yamaha Conservatory Concert Grand with Blue Renner Hammers at my home. Both are refined and kept in perfect condition by the gifted master technician, Ryan Sowers. A fine technician (as opposed to a piano tuner) is very hard to find, and Ryan is my man when it comes to making my piano purr.

To a great extent, my touch on the piano is my singular "voice". It is one of my most outstanding and recognizable features as a pianist. I have repeatedly been told by musicians, critics, and the public in general that they know it's me almost immediately when they hear my works on the radio, just from my touch. The same is true of the late Bill Evans (I had the incredible honor of opening for him on several occasions and getting to know him a bit). Bill and I shared a similar regard for the importance of touch and the generation of tonal color. We spoke several times about the difficulties of bringing these subtle but striking bits of technique to the stage, often on a different piano every night, or to a piano that had been bludgeoned by a "heavy-handed piano player", who oft-times was a very good piano player. But a piano player nonetheless, and not a pianist.

Every night for two weeks - up until mere days before his death - I watched this superb, sublime artist make a full-house of his fans cry, myself included, partially because he was obviously very sick, but mainly because he chose so many ballads and played them with such color, clarity, depth, and passion that he overcame the limitations of a devastating disease, and of a piano that had withstood years of every sort of abuse imaginable. The longer he played, the more the piano responded to his brilliant musicianship and signature touch.

Touch cover

above photo by Jimmy and Deana Katz @

Encountering a fine solo pianist has become a rare experience, and being emotionally moved by one is rarer still. Playing alone requires competence, confidence, a style that is all one's own, originality, a body of one's own work, and courage. I believe that any musician, be it drummer, bassist, violinist, harpist, or any other instrumentalist you can think of, should be able to go on-stage, alone, and keep a crowd rapt and attentive for at least 75 minutes. I remember master drummer Max Roach and his hi-hat, all alone on stage together, doing just that.

I also remind myself that life is not a contest… and nor is music. True music is not about the player, except to the extent that the player can render the music in an emotional form that touches and moves, changes and enlightens the listener. During a performance, I may stop pieces mid-way if they don't suit me, and start again. I mumble things to myself, and I speak to the audience, always letting them know what I think I'm up to, including what I want to be up to. I never make the people feel as if they are listening to something that they are not smart enough to comprehend. If it's impossible for them to understand, you can bet I won't have a clue either. A lot of the "new music", accompanied by unintelligible piano miseries and drum sophistry, all underpinned by fallacious bass playing, is one good reason to pursue a career in solo piano, if only to balance the scales of good and evil.

And so, I explore! Seek. Invent. Discover. Take chances. Find the Holy Grail within the thicket of notes that spring up around me every time I play. I no longer direct the music. The music takes me where it wants to go. I choose a vehicle, and that is all. If I can not find one that suits me well, I make one up on the spot, or I write one… I have written three hundred of my own compositions so far… and I find myself not wanting to play things that have been played and made famous by other artists. The exception to this rule is a tune like "Goodbye, Porkpie Hat", also known as "Theme for Lester Young", by the great Charles Mingus. I play it because it has been part of me since I first heard Mingus play it fifty years ago. It's in my bones and blood. And when you listen to my own "Gail's Song", you'll hear Mingus in there, and you'll hear Booker Ervin and Booker Little and Jackie Byard and Mingus himself: dum-dum-dum-dum-duuum, descending, on that full bass of his, with those big calloused hands and that soft way he had of talking and singing as he played, conducting the whole band with his bass and his will. I hope you can hear Mingus like I do in that tune… I hope you can hear the orchestra within the piano.

Back cover

above photo by Elaine Arc @

I used to pound on the piano like it was a set of drums. I admit it! But a piano is no longer a percussion instrument for me. It is first and foremost a stringed instrument, with an enormous palette of colors; it is a symphonic instrument. It is a magic box full of feelings and memories, tears and laughter, losses and longing, joy and contentment, passion and fullness of spirit. I have spent a lifetime crafting the key to that box. It is my personal magic, my voice, my destiny. It always has been, and it always will be. Even after I no longer have the wits or the coordination to play, it will remain my magic box, and I will dream of it. In my dreams, I and it will be as one entity. Pure and simple beauty.

I have been pursuing solo playing, almost to the exclusion of all other musical forms. I often burn incense and chant before I play. To play alone and to touch other people in their heart, one's own heart must be pure and open. When my fingers touch the keys, they must be steady, gentle, and sure… and I must be able to hear the songs that are already in the air around me. I often have no idea of what I'm going to play. So recording proceedings like these may appear risky. I had been classically trained to believe that a live performance never allowed the "take-twoness" of a recording. This is a "rule" that I have decided to break quite often.

At this concert, I played several pieces halfway through, only to stop dead and start again with a second take, right there in front of all those people. And nobody there cared one whit. They understood without prior explanation that art is process - and process is sometimes messy. Life and art are likewise often messy.

You, my audience, have taught me so much about playing and living, accepting and loving… others, and myself, too. Messes and all!

Photo by Elaine Arc

above photo by Elaine Arc @

All-in-all, I feel very comfortable with these pieces of my heart. The piano was as in-tune as any reasonably sane human could possibly expect, thanks to my technician, Ryan. This playing I present to you here would be impossible on an out-of-tune instrument...

I was present when Bill Evans played an out-of-tune piano into tune, something that I can do on occasion, and something that one may be able to do by sheer will, by the hearing of the proper sound over the dissonant one. To do this, many pianists unconsciously start to sing quietly in tune, to cover the offending notes and overtones.

Glenn Gould's answer to an out-of-tune piano was to sing heartily and unabashedly
along with it like an opera singer, to the general annoyance of his audiences and his recording engineers. The more out-of-tune the piano was, the louder he would sing. Often the piano would relent (or perhaps the listener's ears adjusted to the din) and Glenn would sing more quietly as the piece wore on. Perhaps he just got hoarse. It's impossible to know for sure, but he did admit to singing more loudly during performances on which the piano was not "up to him." Singing a Bach three-part invention is something of a feat in itself, but when Glenn was up to it, one could hardly fault him, as the music was magnificently executed at unimaginable tempi, even if it WAS accompanied by "de-da-da-dee-da-parumpf-dum-DA" in a voice that was, by turns, soprano, then tenor, then bass, complete with flailing arm movements during triumphant passages. He even conducted himself when he had a free hand.

Someone once said that watching Gould play was like watching a man having an argument with himself. I find this wonderful and hilarious and completely acceptable, given his contribution to the art of the piano. I love him for this.

I make it a point to keep my piano and those on which I perform in tune, so I seem less afflicted by this urge to warble. Erroll Garner grunted, Oscar Peterson keened, Keith Jarrett vocalizes, but none of it bothers me. It's the rapture of the music I hear. I just can't sing, and that serves all of us.

On this album you'll hear pretty much what I and the audience heard on January 7, 2010. I've taken to playing one set only, as classical performers do, and usually that set lasts for 80 or 90 minutes. I've edited out the "take-twos" and my small-talk, but done very little else except order the tunes and cull some of my not-so-favorites.

In summary, I chose the pieces here mainly for their simplicity and their use of space. Nothing much in life is either spacious or simple anymore, and so I release these creations into the wild with hopes that some listeners may find their qualities healing, life-affirming, and filled with the joy and the rapture with which they were made.

Love each other. - Jessica Williams, Jan 28, 2010

Jessica's Hands

above photo by Elaine Arc @

TOUCH / Jessica Williams, Solo Piano, Live in Seattle

Jessica Williams, Live in solo performance on the Main Stage of The Triple Door in Seattle WA
Recorded January 7, 2010, by Craig Montgomery
Piano is a Steinway 'D' 9-foot Concert Grand
Piano Technician Ryan Sowers,
Technical assistant Will Kane
Photos of Jessica by Jimmy Katz or Elaine Arc
Liner notes by Jessica Williams
All compositions by Jessica Williams are published by JJW Music/ASCAP

Peace and freedom, JW 6.20.10