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Jessica Williams, Live At Yoshi's V. 1 and 2, Mulgrew Miller, Live At Yoshi's V. 1 and 2



The MaxJazz Piano Series has seen some great releases from a variety of jazz pianists, with recent releases by three artists in particular commanding attention. Jessica Williams, Mulgrew Miller, and Danny Zeitlin are all accomplished musicians worthy of the attention of legions of listeners.

Jessica Williams is one of the finest living jazz pianists around, a fact that is only known by those who are devoted to the music in the first place. Williams is truly independent, tending to live away from the main musical centers of the United States and refusing to compromise her artistic standards in order to merely record and release albums. Despite this, Williams has amassed an impressive discography over the thirty years or so that she's been recorded as a leader.

Like Bill Mays and Hank Jones, Williams brings a high level of sophistication and class to her playing. She is somewhat more forceful than either of these other pianists, however, her influences running more in the direction of Monk, McCoy Tyner, and Duke Ellington than the Bill Evans school. In addition, Williams is almost impossibly well-versed in the history of jazz and popular music and can bring all kinds of random thoughts to bear on her improvisations. Bits of classical melodies, popular musical themes, and quotes from Salt Peanuts or a Monk tune might easily find their way into her interpretation of a standard piece. But Williams' mastery is such that these quotes and whims never seem forced or even pre-planned, but seem to arise organically out of her improvisational thought processes.

Williams has a thorough mastery of piano technique, so that her every phrase, no matter how rapid or how convoluted, sounds completely effortless. On Volume One of Live at Yoshi's, recorded in 2003 and released in 2004, she and her trio take on a series of standards, including I'm Confessin' That I Love You, Say It Over and Over Again, You Say You Care, I Want to Talk About You, and Mysterioso as well as Billy Cobham's Heather and two Williams originals, Tutu's Promise and Poem In G Minor. Jessica's sense of humor emerges almost immediately, with quotations aplenty on I'm Confessin' That I Love You. The trio, composed of bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis, both of whom have been playing with Williams for some time now, is like an extension of Williams, as though all the musicians were operating from one brain.

Williams is a fine composer, as evidenced by the work here as well as on Volume Two (just released this year), where more of her original work is featured. Tutu's Promise features a funky bass line and Williams does a lot of work with muting the piano strings for a clipped, percussive sound. After the grandeur and swing of the opening three standards, it is an unexpectedly funky outing that serves the listener notice that Williams is a cutting edge musician who may play acoustic piano in a mainstream jazz trio, but who is unlimited in her ability to express herself through the keyboard. Again, young pianists would do well to listen to Williams, who moves from a funky vibe to the middle section of the piece, a bluesy New Orleans funeral dirge, without so much as blinking an eye.

Volume Two is no less impressive, begninng with a beautifully-realized reading of Miles Davis' Flamenco Sketches. There are four Williams originals on this disc, from the gorgeous balladry of Spoken Softly to the playfully Monkish Elbow Room to the Spanish-tinged Soldaji to the light as raindrops Dear Gaylord. She closes out with first a stride-influenced Lulu's Back In Town that raises the roof before finishing up with an inspired rendition of the over-played Gershwin classic Summertime. Williams' two Yoshi's discs are among the finest piano jazz recordings released over the last several years, and kudos are due to MaxJazz for recording this fantastic musician so well over the last few years.


JazzTimes Review, January 2005, Steve Futterman:

To label a modern jazz artist a "two-handed" pianist isn't the blatantly obvious statement it seems. Ever since the bop era, pianists have generally jettisoned the left hand orchestral foundations that bolstered earlier ragtime, stride and swing styles.

Jessica Williams is having no part of all that.

The trio CD Live at Yoshi's: Volume One (MaxJazz), recorded in 2003, finds the eclectic veteran demonstrating the rich and varied two-handed interplay that sets Williams apart from her peers.

So it comes as no shock when she delves into stride on "I'm Confessin' That I Love You," walking bass lines on "You Say You Care," elaborately woven introductions a la Tatum and other fulsome techniques that spark her poised playing and thoughtful improvisations.

Sharp-eared trio mates are essential with a stylist as effusive as Williams, and she gets them in bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis. The two A-list journeymen who resist clutter and are clued in to the pianist's tangents. The easy glide that all three engage in during "Mysterioso" flaunts the same communicative spirit exhibited on the hard grooving "Alone Together" and the restrained funk behind "Tutu's Promise."

Despite the obvious empathy of the Williams-Drummond- Lewis triumvirate, the leader's dexterous work leaves little doubt that she could handle the whole shebang all by herself, if need be.

Still, Williams can reign in her resources when called for; her lyrical statements on "Poem in G Minor" and "I Want to Talk About You" reveal a creator firmly in touch with her inner editor. And you have to give it up for any pianist who uncovers a 1974 ballad ("Heather") composed by Billy Cobham. -Steve Futterman, JazzTimes Review, January 2005


Citypages Review, January 2005

By Britt Robson

JESSICA WILLIAMS, Live at Yoshi's, Max Jazz

For pure flesh on ivory, Williams's touch is unmistakable, the tone subtly bold and resonant and then seamlessly silent. On ballads such as "You Say You Care," she luxuriates in sentiment without banality, her dynamics lush yet precise, the creative twists of harmony and rhythm thrilling like a gambler on a winning streak.

The rhythm section of her trio is sublime. Victor Lewis's cymbal work sheathes the interplay between them like a velvet cape, the sonic textures dappled and dancing. And bassist Ray Drummond is a bear of a man with a sound to match, so enormous you only belatedly appreciate its graceful agility. - Britt Robson, Citypages Review, January 2005


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