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Jazz Music for Our Times: Jessica Williams plays Yoshi's

Jessica Williams at Yoshis

By Tom Chandler

Last Tuesday night, I saw a true jazz original.

I saw someone who defies the current trends, the necessity for media blitz and savvy, who even defied, albeit unknowingly, how long you're "supposed" to play at Yoshi's, Oakland's world-class jazz club.

Her name is Jessica Williams, and she's been playing piano for the better part of the last fifty years or so, since she was four, and has played at various times with Stan Getz, Philly Joe Jones, Tony Williams, Charlie Rouse, Airto, Leroy Vinnegar, and more. All of which is to say that you don't have to take my word for it, Williams is obviously recognized by first class musicians as someone they want to work with.

So why don't we all know who she is

Dave Brubeck called her "one of the greatest jazz pianists I have ever heard," and McCoy Tyner refers to her as a "beautiful player".

I myself, although I'm no McCoy Tyner, certainly enjoyed her playing at Yoshi's immensely, and I consider myself to be a pronounced skeptic.

The thing about Jessica Williams is that she has eschewed the music industry. She has decided that she doesn't like the industry machine, and hasn't released CDs on a national label until very recently. Most of her discs are released on her own Red and Blue label, or through the Canadian Jazz Focus label, which was created especially for her by a rabid fan.

Additionally, she doesn't like playing in nightclubs. On her very engaging website,, under her "favorite things" section, she specifically lists "never having to play in a nightclub again".

And yet, here she was at Yoshi's.

Granted, Yoshi's has a great sound system and no smoking, and by and large people pay attention, but there's still clinking glasses and people eating and whispering. It's not Carnegie Hall, to be sure.

Joined by long-time collaborators Dave Captein on bass and Mel Brown on drums, that was indeed Williams taking the stage, a tall, slightly slouched woman with a shock of long blond-white hair, carrying her purse, and with sunglasses pushed up atop her head.

She picked up the microphone and started some banter about how they were all tired of getting dressed up for gigs and decided that they should start wearing only bathrobes when they played, but Dave didn't have a bathrobe, so he needed to get one if he wanted to be a part of the band.

It actually took a minute before Williams seemed ready to play, but once she started, and the notes began effervescing (yes, effervescing) out of the piano, she didn't seem the least bit uncomfortable. "I've often remarked that the stage is my favorite place to be," she says, and it's obvious.

Williams not only is an extremely poetic player, but also an earthy, bluesy player who respects her musical forebears. As like as not, she dedicates her songs to musicians that she has known and respects, like "The Judge", for Milt Jackson, or the swaggering, gospel-tinged "I Remember Dexter". Both tunes served as jumping off points for Williams' playful, extremely thematic improvisations.

When she improvises, it's a rare thing, because it seems like one can see the logic of her thought. I get the feeling she's just playing, but her ideas flow from one another and build like a composition. It's a bit like listening to Lester Young or Sonny Rollins when he's really happening.

Sometimes there's a lot of notes, and sometimes not. "I'm not impressed by billions of notes," Williams says.

"Music, to me, is a beautiful language, a form of communicaton and self-expression that doesn't need to impress critics or scare the audience half-to-death with pyrotechnical displays of derring-do."

To her, it's about the moment, and sometimes that means monstrous technique comes to bear, and sometimes it's merely about paring it down to the simplest things.

"I think I'll play a tune," she told the audience, and then just launched into what seemed like a random solo, while Brown and Captein folded their arms and watched fondly.

Gradually a tune did emerge, and when it did Jessica said to herself, loud enough for us to hear, "what? Oh… oh, it's Body and Soul!" and then went with it. Halfway through Brown and Captein joined in, pumping up the groove with their subtle understated accompaniment.

This illustrates two points: one, is that jazz music is so much part of Williams' blood that a tune can sneak into her playing and it can be a classic tune and she can not even really recognize it until she stops and thinks about it. That's immersion for you. The next thing is that Captein and Brown and Williams really love playing together.

The emotional link between Williams and Brown is especially evident. His elegance matches her moods to a tee and, not unlike Papa Jo Jones, he obviously has a great time and is constantly prodded and amused by Williams' playfulness. When she goes somewhere with a tune, he's there like glue.

Both Captein and Brown's roles are relatively traditional in this piano trio, it must be said. This certainly isn't the Scott LaFaro concept as far as Captein is concerned. He sticks pretty much to straight walking or mimicking Williams left hand ostinatos, although he did get to stretch out on a couple of solos. Oddly for Yoshi's, his bass was amplified and not miked, and it consistently distorted when he hit the upper register, as if there was a bad connection somewhere. Next time, Yoshi's, just mic the bass.

And, as I mentioned earlier, Williams unintentionally ran long. The usual Yoshi's model is two sets, at eight and ten, and each set is maybe an hour or a little longer. Williams filled up a good hour and a half, even asking the audience, "how do they usually do things here?", and demonstrating how the clock she brought onstage to keep on an eye on time could double as a fake cell phone to ward off unwanted visitors when she's at the airport.

It took a wave from Yoshi's staff to bring the first set to a close, but by then it was already a lot longer than normal for the Oakland club (the worst case scenario in recent memory was Charlie Haden's Nocturne concert, which started late and lasted half an hour!)

If you missed Williams' rare nightclub appearance, there's certainly plenty of CDs that do her justice. A good place to start might be her most recent disc, This Side Up, on MaxJazz, which showcases her poetic, bluesy musings with a warmth and clarity that's very seductive.

You owe it to yourself to listen to this true jazz original.

-9/02 -By Tom Chandler,