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An interview with Philip Clark

(Done in the UK in early Oct of 1999, it appeared in the Dec 1999 issue of Jazz Review, a British Jazz Magazine)

Having reached her half-century, Jessica Williams is busier than ever. Since first touring Britain six years ago, she has built a large and loyal audience who are fascinated by her richly multilayered and adventurous piano style. However, she finds being on the road exhausting and it was a tired and weary Jessica who greeted me at her Soho flat during her recent residency at the Pizza Express. She was missing her home cooking and not finding the polluted atmosphere of London to her taste.

Moreover Williams has deeply ambivalent feelings about working in jazz clubs and had especially suffered the previous night. "There was a guy snoring during my first set! He wasn't asleep but felt he wanted to make an auditory statement about the music. In such alcohol-driven environments people want you to play fast and loud. We wanted to play ballads which somehow did not fit."

For Jessica Williams, the problems of working in a club are indicative of wider problems she perceives in the present jazz scene.

"Clubs are all about technique and chops, and making people go 'Wow' - I've proved I can hit people over the head, but why do I have to keep on doing it? There seems to be a bigger divergence in the scene than ever before. Young players can seemingly play anything on their instrument and do so in every tune!

"However people sense that there is something missing and question why they don't get the same from these players as from Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. I think that many of these guys are not aware of the foundations of the music. This music was born out of such a particular type of situation that you have to take this on board.

"It is not enough to look good and be on the cover of a fashion magazine!"

The foundations of Williams' own aesthetic are perhaps more wide-ranging than one would expect, with Mark Rothko, Steve Reich and Kurt Vonnegut all mentioned during our conversation. With such a searching mind it's not surprising that she is drawn to the work of John Coltrane and Miles Davis and attracted by their visionary ideas. She is also deeply touched by the emotional directness of a player like Dexter Gordon.

"As soon as I wake up in the morning the CD player goes on and I guess those records are the place I come from. I tend to be more influenced by saxophone players and trumpeters than by pianists. The aesthetic of Coltrane is always with me. I'm not interested in slavishly copying his notes, but I've attempted to apply his concepts of sustaining sounds to my piano style."

If the inward-looking and spiritual nature of Coltrane is important to Williams, then Miles Davis represents something slightly different.

"Coltrane had conceptual genius, but worked hard on his horn. Defining genius is dangerous, but I think that it is simply seeing the writing on the wall and acting on it. Miles spent his whole career doing that and had a whole different way of looking at the universe.

"When Miles made Bitches Brew he felt that the world was changing and he wanted to change with it. I don't think it was conscious, he just felt it. After he made a comeback in the eighties, he reached millions of people and his music became meaningful across generations. Perhaps if he was alive today he'd be collaborating with someone like M.C.Hammer!"

Authenticity and the evolution of jazz are never far from Williams' thoughts. She believes passionately that the music will change and pours scorn on those who fashion the music into a museum or choose to dilute it.

"We don't have an obvious innovator in our presence at the moment, but I'm certain that one will emerge. The history of the music tells us that it will change. I don't know how or when, but it will evolve into something else. Music is a reflection of our culture and it is changing faster than ever before. The introduction into our lives of cyberspace and computers will change human consciousness beyond anything experienced during the industrial revolution. Some people are afraid of the dehumanizing aspects of it but my hope is that it will bring people together. I think it will prove to be another tool that will help us to civilize ourselves."

Williams notes that if jazz was born out of prejudice and bigotry then this current cultural shift is one way in which the music will change.

"We still have tremendous racism in America but the cards are on the table and it is being talked about and we are trying to overcome it. Prejudice and racism has been a sickness in our society for decades. Coming to jazz as a white person I've had to deal with these issues. I am certain that prejudice is what kept this music locked up in bars for so long. Some of the greatest innovators on the planet had to work as entertainers for fifty dollars a night!"

Taking music out of bars and into concert halls is a major preoccupation for Jessica Williams and she feels that the club scene in America is falling apart due to anti-drink and smoking legislation. "You can't go into a bar and have a drink and a cigarette so people don't go there anymore. Local musicians are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. I played in bars for 35 years and - for the benefit of the music - I think it is good that this scene is coming to an end. I feel very at home in concert halls and this is where my music can flourish. There are no distractions such as alcohol and all the audience's attention is on me. In return all my attention is on the instrument and making music. Sometimes I want to choke Wynton Marsalis but at least he has had advanced this cause and made playing jazz in concert halls valid and respected. So it should be. Jazz is a great art form."

Once inside a hall, Williams describes the experience of playing in front of an audience as "magical and precious': Her performances typically consist of quirky and personal takes on standards as well as tunes by Thelonious Monk. She is very careful always to take a particular approach when playing a tune and this becomes especially challenging when she asks for requests. "It sometimes takes a while to find an angle on a tune that interests me. We played something last night that was built on 5ths and 9ths, so I used that idea in the introduction. It came out as a beautiful Debussy-like piece that was connected to the main tune, but also stood as a piece on its own.

"Improvising for me is a stream-of-consciousness and when it is really happening there is no thought and it becomes a right-brain process. I try to get the right-brain to do its thing and keep the left-brain switched off Essentially I'm a listener with the audience - I have no idea what is about to occur. The ideas unfold and the whole thing becomes an organic process."

With such an approach to improvisation, I suggested that it might have been obvious for Jessica to follow Keith Jarrett's example of large-scale spontaneous improvisation. "I've got hours of taped improvisations at home but I enjoy working within shorter formats. Whenever I have improvised freely I feel myself setting up little forms and normally end up playing the blues. I work well within formats and enjoy doing things with them that are unexpected. This music isn't complex - it's profoundly simple. The complexity comes from the improvisation and the depth of expression but the formats themselves are very simple. "Kind Of Blue" is a perfect example - there are a few chords and scales but it is conceptually perfect. Trane's "A Love Supreme" is just as simple. There is more going on but the foundations of the tunes are bare bones.

The examples of both Davis and Coltrane again, but what about the influence of pianists on Jessica's work?

"The first jazz musician I heard was Dave Brubeck. His music was really approachable and I understood it. I was playing in 5/4 at the age of 12, before I could play in four! He's kept the music concise and pure and I don't think that he has been given all the credit he deserves."

After her introduction to jazz through Brubeck, Jessica then discovered Thelonious Monk. She considers him to be a major influence, though more as a composer than pianist.

"Don't get me wrong, Monk played great piano! He had a unique technique and it was a way different angle. He was a truly great composer and just heard things differently. I've only recently come to realize how special guys like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller were but so much of that style is in Monk that I learnt it from him."

Williams plays jazz with vocational zeal and considers it a "learning experience". She believes that all great jazz musicians have certain factors in common and her discomfort at what she perceives as a lacking in many contemporary players is a persistent theme. "It used to be that all the great innovators had to pay their dues, playing their instruments obsessively to gain experience. You also had to bring so much emotion and depth to the music that you did something new and made a contribution."

With those ambitious aspirations, I wondered how Williams rated her own contribution. Modestly enough, she doesn't consider herself to be any kind of innovator.

"I think what I do is synthesize things well. I manage to take all I've heard and feel and put it in a loving and somewhat original context. My pianistic touch is entirely mine but that's simply a topping. The foundations of my music are those people I grew up listening to. When the music has such emotional resonance for me then it becomes the basis for what I do."

At a time when marketing men raise the mundane to the level of "masterpiece", such honesty is refreshing. Jessica Williams' latest discs, Jazz in the Afternoon and Ain't Misbehavin' are on Candid. Discs on her own label, including her new issue, It's Jessica's Time, can be ordered from her website