3 Love and Hate
8 Lonnie's Lament
"Art of the Piano is another stunningly beautiful set by Williams; solo piano gets no better than this." - By Dan McClenaghan, Senior Contributor, All About Jazz
JazzTimes, Review by Perry Tannenbaum, March 2010:
In titling her new collection, Jessica Williams might be referencing Baroque composer François Couperin and his seminal L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin. But she is definitely advancing Couperin’s artful use of the piano’s idiomatic elements, and we’re lucky that a properly appreciative Seattle audience witnessed her pioneering technique.
On “Triple Door Blues” and several times afterwards, Williams goes beyond reaching under the lid and strumming the strings. Touching the strings while playing the keys, she can make the piano sound like a harpsichord or a plucked guitar—or, in this instance, a plucked bass. Thankfully the audience is so awestruck that, after a scattering of astonished whoops, they withhold applause until after the demo, upholding jazz audience tradition and underscoring the sensation that we’ve just heard a different instrument soloing.
Williams’ fascinating liner notes are more about pianos, their history, their tuning and her Glenn Gould epiphany than about these performances. Yet musical quality is never subverted by technical gimmickry. Famously gifted with a type of synesthesia that allows her to see different colors when she plays different notes, Williams may actually be trimming her considerable chops so she can share her expanded palette of sound colors.
It’s also less about Monk at this advanced stage of Williams’ career, with a more chameleonic choice of stylings for her original tunes. After nodding toward Erroll Garmer on “Triple Door,” the Spanish flair of “Esperanza” is very much in a Chick Corea vein, and the chromatic balladry of “Diane” evokes Bill Evans. The two covers are equally revelatory.
Williams gracefully waltzes Erik Satie’s “First Gymnopédie,” and proves you can swing on it. Yet the pièce de résistance is Trane’s “Lonnie’s Lament,” where she not only echoes the real McCoy but—with her expanded percussion arsenal—conjures up the entire Coltrane Quartet. Williams can do it all—artfully. - Perry Tannenbaum, JazzTimes, March 2010
Jessica Williams, The Art Of The Piano (Origin) by Doug Ramsey, noted author and jazz critic
Williams' 2800-word liner essay declares renewed and deepened love for the piano and rededicated independence from the strictures and orthodoxies of the music establishment. She cites an internet video clip of Glenn Gould playing Bach as "...a life-altering event" that took her back to "...a music founded on the purity and clarity and infinite tonal colorations of the piano itself." Those are qualities I have never found missing from her work, but for strength, serenity and pianism in all of its aspects, this concert at The Triple Door in Seattle reaches the heights of any solo performance I have heard from her.
Williams pays exquisite attention to harmonic color, touch, and the uses of time in a program of Erik Satie's "Gymnopédie No. 1" (here called "First Gymnopédie"), John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament," and five original compositions. When it was in the development stage in a previous recording, she referred to "Love and Hate" as "my step into the next zone." This version is more settled at the same time that it is more adventurous in thematic development, with contrasting moods and massive, almost symphonic, harmonic structures. Music being multi-dimensional, she still also occupies a more earth-bound zone. She opens the CD rocking, perhaps nostalgically, in a good old blues in G. "Triple Door Blues" incorporates passages in which Williams uses strings and hammers but not keys, and others that refer to the spirit and four-square swing of Erroll Garner.
"Esperanza" sounds as Spanish as its name. It has deep voicings that might have been written by Granados or Rodrigo, and dance rhythms redolent of Central and South America. A recurring phrase in "Elaine" hints at love songs of more than half a century ago, but the piece opens into a thoroughly modern ballad. "Diane" is another original ballad in which Williams' delicacy of touch is a central element even as she builds intensity.
In the Satie "Gymnopédie No. 1," a Bill Evans influence on Williams' interpretation is one color among many. Others are the blues and a brief Satie-like use of the pentatonic scale as in Japanese music. I know of no performance in which a jazz musician has explored the piece more thoroughly.
"Prophets" has the feeling of Coltrane in his late mystical period, with hypnotic modal figures in the left hand and flawlessly executed flourishes on top. Williams does not paint Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament" with the melancholy he gave it as the final movement of his 1964 album Crescent. Still, she subtracts nothing of the piece's air of profound reflection and brings to it buoyancy that may be an indication of her new state of mind. She seems to have stepped fully into that next zone. - Doug Ramsey, noted author and jazz critic
by John Sunier, Audiophile. A fine environment - psychologically and acoustically - allows Williams to make one of her finest recordings yet.
Jessica Williams - The Art of the Piano - Origin Records 82542. FIVE STAR RATING *****
Such a title might seem excessively self-promotional with most other jazz pianists on the scene today, but not so with Jessica Williams. She’s one of the nation’s musical treasures and one of the most distinctively original jazz pianists to be heard anywhere. This is her third CD for Origin, recorded live at the Triple Door in Seattle just this past April. In the notes she speaks of her audience being among the best she’s experienced - “never loud, raucous or challenging.” The fine environment - psychologically and acoustically - allows Williams to make one of her finest recordings yet.
Seven of the eight tracks are originals, along with Erik Satie’s First Gymnopedie. (It’s nice the way many jazz performers are dropping into their programs fairly straight or somewhat improvised classical selections, with no excuses.) Jessica Williams’ notes with the CD are some of the most honest and revealing performer notes I have ever read. She mentions how some years ago she changed her typical jazz pianist’s life by becoming free of alcohol and tobacco, moving more of her playing to the concert stage instead of nightclubs, and seeking and receiving grants from sources such as the National Endowment. She also does many of her tunes at a more deliberate tempo, and mostly eschews the standard jazz pianist’s style of comping with the left hand while rushing finger-busting runs in the right.
But not long ago she had an even more life-altering experience: seeing a video of Glenn Gould performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She hadn’t been fond of the music of Bach but watching Gould brought her back to her days studying classical music at the Peabody Conservatory. She realized she was not just a jazz musician but a pure musician, and didn’t have to follow special rules about how to play, look, act and think. She now sits low to the keyboard in a specially-designed chair, as Gould did. She uses the soft pedal frequently, feeling that often two strings in the midrange and treble of the piano sound much better than three, and often performs with the lid closed or only open a crack. She equates the use of three strings in modern pianos to the excesses of the Lisztian era of trying to get virtuoso sounds - making the piano into an orchestra (which it is not), and also mentions the inability for three strings to always stay in tune, as they generate conflicting transient overtones. (Now that’s an audiophile observation if I every heard one!) She is very precise about how her piano is tuned and adjusted and uses her own expert technician. She speaks of disliking many Steinways for their growling bass and glassy treble. The 9-foot Steinway concert grand at The Triple Door was carefully adjusted to be neither a “screamer nor a growler.” (So perhaps my frequent complaints about the annoying sound of many Steinways on recordings is more due to the tuning of the instrument in question rather than Steinways in general or the recording approach!)
TrackList: Triple Door Blues, Esperanza, Love and Hate, Elaine, Satie: First Gymnopedie, Prophets, Diane, Lonnie’s Lament. by John Sunier, Audiophile
The Perfect Human Tuning: Jessica Williams and “The Art of the Piano”
“It is a magical, mystical, and completely divine arrangement: my self, the music, the piano, and you.” –Jessica Williams (from liner notes, The Art of the Piano)
Although piled high with critical accolades, awards, and grants over her nearly five-decade career, pianist Jessica Williams remains a somewhat obscure if Herculean talent. Seldom performing outside of the west coast, and most often in solo, the Baltimore native is known to discerning audiences primarily through her vast discography and sheaf of original compositions. Nominated twice for a Grammy for best instrumental album, Jessica should get a third nod with The Art of the Piano, recorded live at Seattle’s Triple Door and released this summer on Origin.
The piano is unique among instruments as it can produce the most intimate single lines as well as conjure a full orchestra or marching band. Take 88 keys and a virtuoso artist (composer and arranger) like Jessica Williams, and the piano’s possibilities seem endless. Williams herself, in extensive liner notes for The Art of the Piano, traces her most recent development to an “ahaha” moment upon seeing an online video of Glenn Gould playing Bach, a moment that reconnected her to her classical training at the Peabody Conservatory. “I discovered anew that the piano is a veritable bouquet, a living organism capable of moving people to shouts of delirium or heartfelt tears...I’m, in fact, obsessed with the proper voicing, and the regulation of each note, and the perfect ‘human’ tuning...”
This obsession with voicings (and touch) sets Williams apart from most of her contemporaries and younger generations, and is perhaps what makes her the ultimate solo artist, so apparent in this set of six original compositions and two astonishing arrangements (Satie’s “First Gymnopedie” and Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament”). Her admiration for not only Gould but also Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett is never far from her keyboard. Sharing Jarrett’s feel for the blues, her opening “Triple Door Blues” ripples with a lazy regret and restrained joy of rebirth; the floral cascades of “Esperanza” suggest the grandeur of old Spain as portrayed by Albinez and Granados, even Andreas Segovia. The epic “Love and Hate” (nearly 13 minutes), suggesting McCoy Tyner interpreting Debussy, assigns a different nuance of emotion to each of those 88 keys, the darkest fear, the deepest longing, the softest caress. “Elaine” strangely suggests “Skylark;” “Prophet” flows like a familiar hymn taken apart and reassembled as an offering to the Gods; “Diane” brings back a blues sensibility layered with harp-like cascades and tremolos.
The two “covers” are exquisite. Satie’s “First Gymnopedie” has been fair game for pop and jazz artists from Blood, Sweat and Tears to Yusef Lateef, and here Jessica provides the perfect bassline accompaniment for the ethereal melody, more syncopated than Satie intended yet respect for the original never wavers; it is one of the most stunning compositions in any genre. Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament” is a majestic incantation, pounding, fluttering, testifying.
Founding Red and Blue Recordings a few years ago, Jessica Williams has also benefited from her ongoing relationship with John Bishop’s Origin Records, releasing the magnificent solo Songs for a New Century in 2008 and now the Art of the Piano. Although describing Bill Evans’ solo work, Jessica’s own words seem an apt testament to her own music:
“...it was about touch and song and drama and pain and joy. It was about sorrow and romance and longing...introspective, quiet, simple, tragic, mellifluous, delicately lovely beyond any words.” - Andrea Canter, Jazz Police
By Bill Wood, The Voice of Vashon
Hi, Jessica – The Voice of Vashon is a tiny Internet radio station here on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, where I live, and I have had a jazz show on it for the last nine years (The Jazz Guy). When John Bishop sent me an advance copy of your new CD, The Art of Piano, I was somewhat dismayed because the length of the tracks was mostly in violation of the informal rule we have here that we don’t play any music over six minutes long. So I solved this problem by keeping the CD out of the rotation and presenting it as a Jazz Guy Special. I will be recording the show tomorrow, and I will let you know when the show begins to air. I did this because this CD must be heard. I think it is the most important jazz record of the year, perhaps of the decade. I e-mailed John and encouraged him to put it into the running for a Grammy. I only wish I’d been there for the concert - Triple Door is my favorite venue for live jazz: on the several occasions that I have been privileged to hear you in person I have never failed to be blown away – but you outdid yourself this time - you and that big, ol’ Steinway. - Bill Wood | Voice of Vashon can be found at http://www.voiceofvashon.org
Review By Dan McClenaghan, Senior Contributor, All About Jazz
Pianist Jessica Williams' third Origin Records CD, The Art of the Piano, brings to mind Brad Mehldau's Art of the Trio series that ran through five discs. In Mehldau's case the recordings were, of course, with his trio, featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy (later, Jeff Ballard). Williams' three sets on Origin are all solo efforts, and they are all marvelous explorations of the pianist's singular artistry. Williams, who sat in with Philly Joe Jones' group back in the 1970s, is no stranger to playing in the trio format.
Always a top tier, if somewhat under appreciated, musician, she seemed to rise to the very highest levels in that arena, really coming into her own with the release of Live at Yoshi's, Vol. 1 (MAXJAZZ, 2004) and Live at Yoshi's, Vol. 2 (MAXJAZZ, 2005), both featuring bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis. Seemed is the key word, because Williams' blossoming can truly be traced to her striking out and setting up her own label, Red and Blue Recordings, back in 1997, on which can be found several stellar trio outings including Some Ballads, Some Blues (2001), Now (2004), and For John Coltrane (2005).
Red and Blue Recordings notwithstanding, John Bishop, of Seattle-based Origin Records, has given Williams another outlet with three extraordinary solo piano discs: Billy's Theme (2006), Songs for a New Century (2008), and now, Art of the Piano, recorded live at the Triple Door in Seattle, Washington.
Williams' approach is one of supple, refined elegance that moves easily into percussive muscularity and earthiness, as on the set's opener, "Triple Door Blues." Her fluidity and grace—and the profound beauty of her art—are both on display on "Esperanza," while "Love and Hate" has an exploratory, inward feel and "Elaine" brims with reverence and joy.
Six of the eight tunes are Williams originals, but she covers "First Gymnopedie," from the pen of Eric Satie with buoyant momentum and deep introspection. Williams is especially adept at getting inside the musical souls of fellow music-makers, artists as disparate as Art Tatum on Tatum's Ultimatum; Thelonious Monk on Deep Monk and Billy Taylor on Billy's Theme. Here, she treats John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament" with respect, imbuing it with a mesmerizing spirituality that does the supremely spiritual 'Trane proud.
Art of the Piano is another stunningly beautiful set by Williams; solo piano gets no better than this. - By Dan McClenaghan, Senior Contributor, All About Jazz
Editorial Reviews on Barnes and Noble, Ken Dryden, All Music Guide
In spite of an extensive discography, veteran pianist Jessica Williams seems to elude the world-wide attention that she deserves. This live solo recording at the Triple Door in Seattle in the spring of 2009 is one of her most impressive outings, beginning with her humorous, wide-ranging, improvised "Triple Door Blues," in which develops an infectious theme with many variations, while also working in hand-muting and strumming of the piano strings. The lush "Esperanza" sounds as if it could have been written for classical guitar, while the romantic ballad "Diane" merits lyrics to go along with it. Williams is equally adept interpreting familiar works. Her gently striding take of Impressionist Erik Satie's "First Gymnopedie" expands into a kaleidoscope of colors in her many variations, while her dramatic setting of John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament" detours into a series of insistent bass vamps that serve as the heartbeat of this masterful improvisation. It is little wonder that the audience that night at the Triple Door sat silently as Williams wowed them with her inventive improvising and formidable chops. Highly recommended! - Ken Dryden, All Music Guide
Review by C. Michael Bailey, of All About Jazz
After recording for several labels, Jessica Williams may have found her most empathetic home at Origin Arts. She has produced several fine recordings with the label that include: Songs (with Carolyn Graye)(0A2, 1997); Billy's Theme: A Tribute to Dr. Billy Taylor (Origin, 2006); Songs for a New Century (2008, Origin); and now, in 2009, The Art of the Piano, recorded in solo performance live at The Triple Door, Seattle.
Like Cyrus Chestnut, Williams enjoyed classical training at the Peabody Institute but forewent any additional academics for a stint in drummer Philly Joe Jones' band. Still, Williams' classical experience deeply colors her jazz performance. She opens the disc with a lengthy blues composed for the venue. A capable blues player, Williams infuses the 12-bar format with contrapuntal flourishes and chromatic variances reminiscent of Scriabin by way of Bach. "Triple Door Blues" is one of six original compositions on the disc. Williams' writing is characterized by repeating simple, often ascending figures over which she solos as only she can, illustrating all influences, and no influences, on her playing.
"Love and Hate" is such a piece, where Williams employs a variety of percussive techniques to color her melodies. "Elaine" is an ostensible ballad with harmonics borrowed from Tin Pan Alley and shown through a prism of modernity. Williams plays two standards, Erik Satie's "First Gymnopedie" and John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament." In the former, Williams instills a steady whimsy and in the Coltrane piece, she captures all of the saxophonist's angular presentation of his wall of sound. Jessica Williams has attracted much attention lately and it is about time. She is Bill Evans with density, McCoy Tyner with a soft touch, she is none other than Jessica Williams. - Review by C. Michael Bailey, of AllAboutJazz
The Art of the Piano - The Jazz Piano Reexamined, October 21, 2009 By Dr. Debra Jan Bibel "World Music Explorer"
The title of this album, The Art of the Piano, should be differentiated from The Art of the Pianist, for Jessica Williams, as described in the inserted booklet, has reexamined the instrument itself and its customary use. This goes beyond the manufacturing and model design differences among Steinway, Yamaha, Baldwin, and Bösendofer pianos. Why today should there be three strings per note?, she wonders, observing that when the hammer hits two strings via a pedal shift, the sound is more pure, with less a chance for the slight mistuning of a string during performance. A fully opened lid creates a larger volume at the sometime unnecessary sacrifice for nuance, she notes. Taking a page from Glenn Gould, whom she greatly admires, Williams has experimented with the height of the piano seat and the Thelonious Monk flatness of the hand versus the classical curved fingers when striking the keys. She has reached inside the piano for harp-like effects. She has softened the music with a pedal. And she has returned to the idioms, the more developed bass hand, and the cross-over playing of her classical training. Williams plays the piano in more ways than striking the pseudo-ivory.
What results is heard in this live recording in a concert setting: beauty and subtlety and sweetness. With six of her own compositions and two improvisations on Erik Satie and John Coltrane pieces, her music is akin to Keith Jarrett's romantic and semi-classical solo explorations, though the unique Williams style or "voice" is consistent. Her first track, a fun blues, well demonstrates her novel piano technique and her variation on the Satie Gymnopédie is a rich invention. This decade has seen a remarkable development in her playing, beginning with her 2001 live concert at Maybeck Hall in Berkeley and closing with this 2009 performance at the Triple Door in Seattle. This recording is a brilliant addition to the large Jessica Williams catalogue. Dr Debra Jan Bibel, Music Critic, Artist
The Art of the Piano - Sets a very high bar and bounds joyfully over it, October 11, 2009 By Ian Muldoon (Coffs Harbour, NSW Australia)
To begin, you have to have some chutzpah to call your work the Art of the Piano. On the other hand, it sets a very high bar, and expectation in the listener. Not only in the title, but in the program chosen - originals accompanied by two classics, one by Satie and one by Coltrane. The former in particular is tricky one to chose so beloved is it in the contemplative, mood, impressionistic melody stakes of Western "classical" music - like let's have some swinging Satie by Jessica Williams - ouch. High potential for the cringe factor especially for piano lover's of a classical bent.
Not only that, the program is accompanied by an "artist's statement". These are not just liner notes, but a quite personal statement about the music and her musical journey. I found them enthralling. Jazz live performance, where the audience often treat the music as a background to their eating or drinking or as just entertainment is rarely given the dignity it truly deserves. I once said to Dr Billy Taylor in New York at one of his outdoor events in Central Park "This is the classical music of 20th Century" and he just smiled benignly at my comment, which was probably first made by Mr Edward Kennedy Ellington about 50 years ago. It is true that much beloved jazz has arisen out of such venues as the Cotton Club, the Village Vanguard(VG) etc. One famous record of a piano trio by Bill Evans (at the VG)has an unbelievable level of audience noise it is true, especially noticeable when the bass player solos, but still a selfish intrusion into the music by those in the audience. Perhaps worse is the Plugged Nickel of Miles Davis .I'm completely on side with Keith Jarrett here who tries to encourage certain standards of behaviour from the audience - the musicians' medium is sound so one has to respect that.
In her liner notes statement she makes reference to the predisposition of performers to "play up" to the audience at the expense of the music. I know what she means. The only time I was lucky enough to hear Oscar Peterson perform in a concert setting, he showed the audience an amazing wealth of technical wizardry but left us(me) unmoved. I can assure the reader that Ms Williams in this program The Art of the Piano, she places the music, and its quality of sound, very much first - being made in the presence of a respectful audience shows too.
In this regard her views on the music and the instrument are reassuring and very interesting - both in regards to tuning of the instrument, its characteristics, and her preferences as well as to the quality of the recording. As a long time lover of the piano as the premier instrument of musical expression, the series of piano records made at Maybeck Hall did set something of a standard in jazz piano recital at least in my opinion as a humble listener. Ms Williams recorded there and it was issued as Volume 21 in the series.
To the CD under review: it succeeds and is a very special program of music, played by a consummate artist on a beautiful sounding instrument before a respectful audience and has been recorded to a high standard. It has an aura and feel about it where the artist's statement segues seamlessly into the music, into the sound, and the word "hush" comes to mind. We may hold our breath as she opens Satie's piece, but an improvisation on it settles our fears magnificently. The program is quite a beautiful and heartfelt listen. Perhaps even a major achievement by this artist. A significant record of accomplished pianism. By Ian Muldoon, critic
I tend to audit jazz records (esp. piano) with VERY HARD ears... as I would with Jarrett and other greats, Jessica Williams (always good) has developed into a genius! It's very hard to be witty and profound and unique in instrumental music...esp. using musical "found objects" as she has done for years. Now she has added her twists (muted strings and crossing hands) and covers a wide range of emotions too. One can expect to hear NASTY blues all the way to heart breaking lyricism and unaffected music puns in a single CD... and it never gets stale! In the vast wasteland of wannabees and Blue note clones wearing porkpie hats, Jessica is a gift to the world! - Marius Nordal
Hi Jessica, I had to write to tell you what a wonderful new recording you have out. The music reached out and grabbed me and seemed to get inside me! Thank you for the fine music. Best regards and hope you are feeling well. - Jim Sintetos (I interviewed you about your Maybeck album)
After creating a station on pandora.com, one artist, YOU, kept catching my attention and heart. You are INCREDIBLE and I will be your fan forever! Your fan in Macon, GA - Stuart___
Liner Notes by Jessica Williams:
The Art of the Piano
Jessica Williams, Live in solo performance on the Main Stage of The Triple Door in Seattle WA
Recorded April 9, 2009, by Craig Montgomery
Piano is a Steinway D, 9-foot Concert Grand
Produced by Jessica Williams. Photos by Elaine Arc
All compositions by Jessica Williams are published by JJW Music, ASCAP
I played my first piano at the age of four. Since then, I have played many thousands of instruments, in many hundreds of cities, all over the world. It is what I was born to do. It was always easy, much easier than anything else I tried to do. There was very little trying involved. I never once questioned that it would be my life's work, my primary mission. And so it has been.
Love of art and music has swept through my life and carried me to exotic and esoteric places, both geographically and metaphorically. It is my ally, my companion, and my source of meaning. Being a pianist, a true pianist, requires being a true musician. Many people play instruments, but I am positively driven to be the finest musician that I can possibly be, and to share the gifts I have with as many people as possible. It is my only way to change my world. It is my only way to save myself.
My music evolves and changes and grows in fits and starts, and it always surprises me. It's never predictable or linear.
For example, not too long ago, saxophone and trumpet players were my primary inspiration. John Coltrane and Miles Davis still remain primary influences for me. But several years ago, after a lifetime of being not terribly fond of the music of J. S. Bach, I chanced on an Internet video of Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations.
It was a life-altering event - I cried tears of joy for weeks, months - and it opened my mind, changed my thinking, affected me spiritually, and cleared the way for my NEW music, a music founded on the purity and clarity and infinite tonal colorations of the piano itself. It brought me full-circle back to my playing of classical music at the Peabody Conservatory, where I studied in my early years. It also affected my attitudes about ALL kinds of music, especially ethnically-diverse world music. It was as if a door opened for me, and I stepped into a world where there were fewer rules and regulations about how to play and look and act and think. I learned to speak my mind! I learned to trust my heart! I learned that I was not just a jazz musician, but a pure musician, free to reach back to Bach and Beethoven and Debussy, free to play beautiful music without clashing discords and cacophonic displays of pyrotechnics. I could even rock out!
In this new and exciting music that embraced all experience and all emotion, women instrumentalists were not excluded, one's age had no relevance, one's color was immaterial, and making music did not involve the physicality of a sporting event.
After Gould, I no longer wanted to play like most of the jazz pianists played: left hand comping chords and right hand playing ultra-fast lines in a mad competitive dash to finish first. In jazz, too often the fastest player is considered the best player. But in music of the heart, speed is only one facet in an arsenal of tools for self-expression. The performance becomes a unification of elements, from style and posture to technique and elegance, from passion and power to joy and sadness. I discovered anew that the piano is a veritable bouquet, a living organism capable of moving people to shouts of delirium or heartfelt tears.
I began using techniques I hadn't used since childhood... crossing hands, using varying fingering sequences, meshing fingerings in layers, using all three pedals, using NO sustain pedal, applying wide dynamic ranges, working on posture and attack, and relearning the best way to touch the instrument. On occasion, flat fingers work well. Other times are meant for curled fingers, using only the tips. I learned to make the piano sound like a guitar (without touching the strings), and a gong, and bells. I began to seek a tremolo, which we all know is impossible on a piano. But I swear I can hear it at times...
Quite a few years ago, my life took a turn. Rather, I turned it, by applying for and receiving funding from such sources as the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, by getting out of nightclubs, by moving my music to the concert stage, by becoming clean and free of alcohol and tobacco, by rediscovering my passion for GREAT music as opposed to simply good music, and by nurturing my natural, innate ability to make audiences weep with joy as opposed to providing them with practically free and usually recognizable - if unusually inventive - "jazz party music" - to the strains of which they might get loaded or lucky or both.
Now, discovering how a piano's action affects my creative process is a relatively fertile area of interest. Suddenly, in my sixth decade, I'm concerned with the removal of fall-boards, key velocity, seat position and height, touch, after-touch, voicing, and regulation. I'm, in fact, obsessed with the proper voicing, and the regulation of each note, and the perfect "human" tuning, without the use of any digital devices.
I would play any instrument without complaint in my youth, but now I'm very hard to please when it comes to pianos. And I realize that a good piano technician is essential for a proper performance; that a piano tuner is not always a piano technician. Likewise there is a world of difference between a piano player and a pianist. A true technician is as fussy and particular about perfection in color and tone and touch and attack and sound as any fine pianist, and occasionally more so.
I like a swift, sure action, even from bottom to top. I don't like pianos that feel like Ford trucks. "Like a rock". Or is that Chevy? Whatever it is, it should never apply to pianos. I shouldn't have to be an athlete to play a swift passage. I shouldn't have to exert much physical energy to accomplish ANY task at a piano, other than to clean it or move it, which I always neatly avoid. It needs to be without discernible resistance. I know this goes against all the theories that one can get more dynamics if one has a wider range of "striking power", but it's almost never true. When action is swift, when the hammer of the grand piano rises to caress or solidly strike the string, it should be ready, on a moment's notice, to do it again. This is called "repetition" and it's important to me because I love bells, and can emulate them only if the action is swift and light enough to do so. There are more than a few bells on Love and Hate, one of my favorite offerings here.
I dislike pianos that growl and scream. Steinway is known for its "growling bass". Growling should be reserved for circus animals and professional wrestlers. I don't want a piano that growls at me. And screaming is equally upsetting. The glassy tinkle of the high treble of some Steinways makes my ears hurt. Yamaha used to be guilty of that but the company is learning. The high end should be bell-like, even a bit thin, percussive, and clear. Thin like cold clean air at an elevation, not thin like aluminum foil.
I should note that the Steinway D 9-footer on which I'm playing here is neither a screamer nor a growler. It's the house piano for The Triple Door in Seattle, a beautiful large space to present music, that is a converted old movie theatre with pristine acoustics and a nicely elevated stage. This Steinway is a fine instrument, prepared and serviced for me by my technician, Yuri Melech. He's the finest piano technician in the Northwestern US.
At many smaller concert venues, I play with the lid fully closed or at quarter-stick. Lots of attendees and - more specifically - most promoters are horrified at this "break" from tradition. To have spent all of that money for something so big, and then, to have little me just amble in and close the lid, as if the concert were over and I have not yet played a note... the idea! It's the metaphorical equivalent of having cold water dashed in their face. All of that money!
But when I begin to play, and the mellifluous beauty of a "damped" Steinway catches their ears and hearts, opinions change. And often, after a few pieces, I'll get up and open the lid fully (they are heavy, to be sure)... sometimes in the middle of a piece, keeping time and humming all the while. Instant Big Band!
My more unorthodox views on playing the piano may be met with even less enthusiasm.
I am sitting lower than most pianists now: my specially designed chair (shades of Glenn Gould) is adjustable from 14 to 20 inches off of the ground. I usually settle at around 16. If I sit as low as Gould did, my upper arms may ache when playing in the extreme bass or extreme treble end. The reason Gould liked the position was that he played a LOT of contrapuntal music, much of it written for harpsichord, which had a keyboard several octaves shorter than a piano.
I like the soft pedal, probably a bit too much. But the single most annoying thing about most pianos (to me) is the inability for all of those strings to stay in tune all of the time, much less through a performance. Two strings per note, from lower treble to the absolute top of the register, is enough. And by depressing the soft pedal, the entire keyboard of a grand piano will - or should - shift slightly towards the right, and the hammer should hit only TWO strings. It sounds more sonorous, more absolute. It has a clarity and a singing quality and a purity that three strings sometime drown out. Three strings rarely can be tuned to produce such beauty, such lovely clear singing.
I often feel that three strings per note on the middle and upper register of any piano is a roadblock, serving only to detract from the beautiful sounds that might emerge, were the instrument allowed to bypass all of the conflicting transient overtones created by three strings per note. So I am waiting for someone to make a piano with one string throughout the bass for each note, and two for each other note on the middle and upper end. That would be some piano. With an action as fast as light, and less strings, the piano would become a truer, more playable, and more tunable instrument. More adjustable to the player. Why should the player have to adjust to the piano, especially when you consider the cost of a decent one?
There was historical precedence for the madness of stuffing so many strings into such a small space. One imagines that some idiot tried four, and yes, probably five strings at once. Thinking on this for a moment, I'm sure of that, having lived long enough to understand the excesses to which over-zealous, self-appointed experts are driven to.
The historical precedence was twofold: a) volume; to facilitate the optimal use of the triceps and biceps, along with the quadriceps and other angular anatomical anomalies that some people seem so fond of, to create great storms of sound, literal crashing cascades of notes played at the highest volume possible: think of the word "thunderous", think of the pouring forth of the passions of a tormented soul, all very noisy affairs; and b) volume; the decision to put one orchestra (the piano) in front of another orchestra (the orchestra) and call it "piano and orchestra."
And I feel that way about jazz music, too. If only Bill Evans had been left to his own devices more often! When he played solo, it was about touch and song and drama and pain and joy. It was about romance and sorrow and longing. It was music from his heart. Introspective, quiet, simple, tragic, mellifluous, delicately lovely beyond any words. I was there, we were friends, and he made my cry with joy more than once. I miss him and I miss the tears.
That's why I am positively seduced by Gould. That's why I don't care much for many of the younger "cult" pianists who are more concerned with speed and image than with substance and moral courage. That's why I find the music of Keith Jarrett so stunningly powerful at times. Jarrett is one of the greatest pianist in the world, but he is not afraid to "not sound as if he is," and this I find enthralling and captivating. USEFUL. It speaks to his courage as a true musician, taking chances, pushing the envelope. Very useful. I find nothing useful in billions of notes spun out by millions of tiny flying fingers, in thousands of universities and institutions and halls of academia, not to mention concert halls, all over the planet, on any given average day. Mediocrity is everywhere, and it can be learned at school. A true musician learns mostly on their own.
And soon it will be five decades in the music industry for me! And yet I am now a bit like a recalcitrant and intractable little girl, new to the neighborhood, with arms crossed, holding my breath and turning blue. I won't dye my hair. I won't wear silly, constricting garments that are impediments to movement. I won't try to look happy when I'm sad, and I won't try to act healthy when I'm ill. I will not try to act interested when I'm bored, and I won't say I like something when I actually abhor it. My detractors may chalk this up to old age, as if six decades on earth makes one Methuselah, but I know that it's ME emerging after years of being told what to do and how to do it. It doesn't fly with me anymore: I won't play Autumn Leaves.
Consequently, I am attracted to those artists, those very few artists, whose art sometimes offends, provokes controversy, and won't leave you as it found you. I am attracted to musicians who are iconoclasts, not especially admired for their appearance, or universally loved for their winning personalities. They must be artistically magnificent. More than competent, and more than great, they must be profound. They must cross, effectively traverse, and hopefully even erase the line between life and death. That is the line between art and life. I won't settle for good or even great. It must be pure Truth I am hearing.
It is now impossible for me to bend to the pressure of other human beings to be a certain way, to look or act or play or think or believe or behave a certain way. I can not be friends with just anyone, and I can not play with just anyone. I can not just listen to just anyone. And yes, there are times when I can not listen to myself. I must work harder! I must feel more deeply! I must take more chances!
I must always be purely and passionately myself!
So I am now re-crafting my music so that I may listen to it again with confidence and approval. I increasingly enjoy what I am hearing coming from my heart and into my hands. It is a time of great change for me, and I like most of the changes.
The piano is a wonderful friend now, perhaps more than a friend... a lover. There were times past when I saw it on stage as a big bull, and I as the matador who must risk her life and limb to tame it, conquer it. No more. Competition with others is a waste of time and a path to self-deception; competition with self is pure madness.
When I was four, the very first note I played was an F. I know that because I saw an orange ball of color, which is the color I see even now when I play an F. When I played the next note I saw blue-green, and I know that it must have been an A. I still see the same colors, and I still dream the same dream: to share every bit of my gift with others so that they will love each other more and more... at least while we share the music! It is a magical, mystical, and completely divine arrangement: my self, the music, the piano, and you.
-Jessica Williams, May 29, 2009
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