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Playing Her Heart: Jazz pianist Jessica Williams seeks unity with her music

By Marianne Messina, the SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

IF YOU ASK Jessica Williams what state her art is in at the moment, she's likely to tell you the story of a recent experience she had in Boston. She was playing at Scullers with Victor Lewis and Ray Drummond, two people who, she confesses, would have intimidated her six years ago.

"These are like heroes," she says, "these are like the cats." And though Williams has played with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Charlie Haden, Gary Bartz and Bobby Hutcherson, the Scullers gig had her a little nervous.

"The very first thing before I even played a note," Williams recounts, "some guy said, right in the front row, '... and she's really not that great anyway,' and he kind of grinned at me, like guilty, and I said, 'Well you know, I'm glad you brought that up, because this has really gotten a little out of hand. It makes me feel competitive. I think the trouble that jazz is in --and the trouble that our world is in --is that we're all trying to compete. We're not trying to play together."

Williams found clearing the air in this way a freeing experience. "All I had to do was play my heart and be honest," she says of the show that followed.

For a minute, as Williams tells this story, you wonder what it has to do with jazz technique, or idiom, or how far she has come from inspirational roots like Thelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon. But after 26 albums and more than 40 years playing piano, things like technique, theory and acuity have long been internalized; her musical growth and her personal growth have fused.

Two years ago, the baby-boomer pianist embarked on her current growth spurt when she founded her record company, Jessica Williams Music. Along with lifestyle changes, like quitting alcohol and smoking, Williams became computer-savvy, birthed a musical web family and recorded two close-to-her-heart CDs that can only be found at

"I needed this record company," says Williams, "because going through a record producer was always about like, bottom-line units sold, slick, performance-oriented, 'What is the hook on this? How are we going to get this to sell more than 5,000 units?'"

Now a new, more centered Williams is stepping out of the cocoon and onto the MaxJazz label. After flying to Boston to see her Scullers show, the MaxJazz rep was able to pen an ideal contract for Williams. "Of course it was perfect," Williams says, "because the music told him what it was that I needed."

Meanwhile, what happened to her front-row critic?

"He kind of took it personal and left," Williams reports.

He never got to hear her play.

However, New York jazz critic Bob Blumenthal heard the performance and raved. In a local appearance, extremely rare for the Santa Cruz resident, Williams will be sharing this musically personal exploration of her current question, "What is my job in this world?"

In words, she can articulate only a partial answer. "It's not just to play piano; it's beyond that. It's somehow to facilitate some sort of action that brings people together: 'It's not about me, it's about us.'"

- Jessica Williams will be the guest of the Stanford Jazz Workshop's "Second Sunday" performance, on Sun, Mar 11, at 7:30pm at the Campbell Recital Hall in the Braun Music Center, Stanford . Tickets are $20 general admission/$18 students. (650.736.0324)

-From the March 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper. Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network. For more information about the San Jose/ Silicon Valley area, visit



Special to the Mercury News by Andrew Gilbert (San Jose, CA)

Taking the stage for a solo piano performance, Jessica Williams looks like a solitary figure, alone with her music.

But she sounds like multitudes.

A tremendously assured musician, Williams marks her style with ravishing lyricism and daring improvisational flights. But what really sets her solo performances apart is her gift for seamlessly weaving together various jazz keyboard styles, encompassing the highly syncopated stride school of the '20s and '30s, the light, effortlessly dancing approach of the swing era, the jagged single-note runs of bebop and the rhythmically diffuse sound perfected by Bill Evans in the '60s, all integrated into an organic whole by her compelling sense of narrative flow.

Williams plays a solo concert Monday at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.

And on March 11, she performs at Campbell Recital Hall at Stanford University's Braun Music Center as part of a Stanford Jazz Workshop concert series.

"I've developed a style playing solo that I've never heard done before,'' says Williams, 51, from her home near Santa Cruz."It's a combination and accumulation of just about every style of piano playing in the universe, from very modernist to very retro. I do readings of other artists that border on channeling. Lately, Errol Garner has kind of seeped into my playing and become a part of me, as have Monk and Ellington, Coltrane and Rollins and Miles Davis.

Virtuosos in her head.

"Now we've gotten to this point where in any given tune I can hear 20 different musicians, including horn players and drummers. For a while there, the critics were saying, "She sounds like this; she sounds like that."Now they just say, "That must be Jessica because she sounds like everybody." And that's exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. I've never been good at limiting myself.''

The multiplicity that is Williams has been well-documented in recent years. She has released more than 25 albums since 1990 on a variety of labels, and, though many of her recordings have received extravagant critical praise, she remains dissatisfied with much of her work. In striving to succeed and establish a reputation in a male-dominated art form, Williams feels she's been pressured to emphasize technical skills at the expense of a broader musical vision. "Being a female musician, you're always going to have to be better than the boys," Williams says. "Four different record companies in a row said, "This album doesn't have enough fast stuff on it; it has to have more technique." But you reach the stage in your life where you've just got to say, 'OK, I've proven that I can play stride and I can play fast and bebop, and now it's time to make my own statement.'"

A few years ago, she decided to ignore all the expectations and develop an approach that would satisfy her own needs.

By applying for grants to support her writing and solo projects, Williams gradually lifted herself off the jazz treadmill of low-paying nightclub gigs. It was a risky but shrewd career move.

She landed two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in the early '90s and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1994, which allowed her to turn down job offers and concentrate on developing a solo repertoire. "When I got phone calls, it would be very tempting to take a gig for $100 or $150, but I would say no," Williams says. "The grants gave me enough courage to say no. Not that I didn't want to go out and play -- because I was really isolated and lonely -- but it was good for me because all I did was practice and prepare myself for the concert stage."

Forging a solo style --- Having spent most of her career honing her skills as an accompanist or as the leader of a trio, she found that developing a solo style forced her to rethink her entire keyboard approach."I don't do as much bebop playing solo, and I developed the left-hand bass line to an art," Williams says. "I also fully developed the inside-the-piano playing. And I worked on establishing foundations and different ways of playing tunes that would be full and rich and would imply the presence of a rhythm section without actually having one."

Her desire for complete artistic control has carried over into every aspect of her career. Williams founded her own label in 1999. She has released six CDs on it so far, including a number of albums using a synthesizer to create the sound of an entire jazz ensemble.

She sells the CDs from a Web site ( that she designed and maintains herself.

"I used it as a tool to quit smoking," she says." Instead of lighting up a cigarette, I'll sit down and build a Web page. I've been offered distribution, but I've turned it down because I wanted to make it available just on that one Web site. I've got a wonderful relationship with my customers. They understand that, when they buy from me, they're actually buying from the artist, and the artist is actually getting the money." Raised in Philadelphia, Williams was drawn to jazz at an early age. Her need to express herself surfaced early. While taking classical piano lessons, she always felt confined by having to stick to the sheet music. "My teacher realized I wasn't going to be a classical musician," she says. "But he was a moonlighting jazz musician; so he hipped me to jazz. I never really enjoyed playing classical; I never felt good with the restrictions."

As a young musician on the Philadelphia jazz scene, she worked with Miles Davis' former drummer, Philly Joe Jones, and developed a strong rhythmic foundation and blues sensibility playing in organ trios. Her reputation really started to spread in the mid-'70s, when she was the house pianist at San Francisco's leading jazz club, Keystone Korner. It was a heady period for her, playing weeklong stands with jazz legends such as Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz and Eddie Harris. But it was a difficult time, too, marked by the substance-abuse that has long shadowed show business. "I think it was more like being slightly crazy than being entirely musically ready," Williams says. "At that period, a lot of us were having problems with alcohol and drugs, and I was no exception. So in a way, it was a very dark period. There was a lot of fear involved, but it was also an incredible learning experience. I survived the situation, and a lot of musicians didn't."

She has not only survived but thrived and has attained the status of a revered veteran.

But unlike many players who settle into comfortable routines in mid-career, Williams has maintained a creative edge.

She has come to embody an art form that puts a premium on individuality, and she has embraced the struggle for self-definition that's an inherent part all improvisation. With decades of hard-won wisdom to guide her, Williams has gained the confidence to invite her audience to experience her act of musical self-creation.

"I've learned a lot about myself as a performer and as a person because you're alone up there," Williams says. "When you're with a band, if you're not having a good night, you can kind of hide a little bit. But it doesn't work that way solo. I walk out on the stage, and I have to be 100 percent there.

"I've come to really love communicating with audiences, seeing people laugh and have fun, and feel things that maybe they've forgotten that they can feel. I don't know if that would have happened if I just played with a band."

Where: Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz When: 7:30 p.m. Monday Tickets: $15.75 Call: (408) 998-2277, (510) 762-2277

Also: 7:30 p.m. March 11, Campbell Recital Hall, Braun Music Center, Stanford University, $20, (650) 736-0324


Jessica Plays for Lovers and Solo Compositions

Review by Jorg Knobloch for allaboutjazz

These two CDs recorded in September 2000 are amongst the latest output of Ms. Williams on her own record label. More than 30 CDs recorded for labels like Jazz Focus, HEP and Candid and others (the reviewer owns 28 and knows of three more) make Ms. Williams a very prolific artist.

On her own label she takes control over all aspects of CD production. This time around, the artwork is quite lightweight, but the same does not apply to the music. Solo Piano Compositions features original compositions, some are new tunes, others make welcome reappearances from previous CDs.

Jessica Williams Plays for Lovers features an all standard program of ballads. All pieces are played in a pensive and quiet way and have emotional warmth to them. Both disks will appeal to anyone who likes intelligent solo piano with a very personal touch. Solo piano playing isn't easy as the artist needs to fill all the space and cannot rely on the band. Many players play too many notes that don't contribute to the musical substance. Not so Ms. Williams. In her very own way she gently conjures up harmonies or provides a steady left hand groove. But make no mistake: Ms. Williams is a technical master, a fact she reminds us of by interspersing some sparkle where it doesn't disturb the simple beauty.

The sound quality of the recordings is excellent and fully brings the mood across. One word about the title Jessica Williams Plays for Lovers. Don't believe it! The CD will play for anyone, lover or not.

All you need is a heart to appreciate the music. Recommended!

Jessica Williams Music can be found at Track Listing: Solo Piano Compositions: 1) Innocence 2) Blues for Bill 3) Vision Quest 4) What's Next 5) Spoken Softly 6) Waltz for Red 7) Remembering 8) Elbow Room 9) Dark One 10) Simple Things

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Jessica Williams plays for Lovers: 1) Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered 2) Don't Explain 3) That's All 4) I Loves You, Porgy 5) My Foolish Heart 6) I Wish I Knew 7) Flamenco Sketches 8) When I Fall in Love 10) Blue Moon 11) Naima

Personnel: Jessica Williams: solo piano

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