BILLY'S THEME - A Tribute to Dr Billy Taylor - Jessica Williams, solo piano, composer - A major release on Origin Arts Records - Premiered at the Kennedy Center May 11th, 2006 by Jessica Williams, solo piano - THIS ALBUM IS AVAILABLE: BUY
2 Billy's Theme #1
3 The Soul Doctor
4 Blues for BT
5 Taylor's Triumph
6 Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation #1
7 Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation #2
"I listened to this new cd over the weekend and out of the nearly 150 cds I have listened to so far this year, this is THE CD OF THE YEAR for me. I'm not just saying this. I am very serious here... brilliant... genius... original... breath-taking... 5 STARS." - Michigan Jazz Week (see below)
Michigan Jazz Week - May 22, 2006
Over a dozen on the list caught Jessica Williams at Kerrytown for an INCREDIBLE solo piano set. Jessica is a very unique and gifted musician. I myself just stumbled across her work last year and have been really wanting to see this set for months. I only caught the 2nd set of course and she played numerous standards and originals, but did so in her own unique way. She also played a suite of songs of her latest cd , Billy's Theme.
I listened to this new cd over the weekend and out of the nearly 150 cds I have listened to so far this year, this is THE CD OF THE YEAR for me.
I'm not just saying this. I am very serious here... brilliant... genius... original... breath-taking... 5 STARS.
While the year is young I know, it will be hard to top this one, and I mean in any genre/ sub-genre of Jazz. It is her tribute to Dr Billy Taylor. She has 4 other new cds that have been released this year (but only brought this new one) I think I will be getting those as well! I encourage all to check out her work and give her a chance. I have said that I think she can play Monk almost as good as Monk himself! Thanks to Deanna and Kerrytown for bringing her in... and considering the great turnout, I hope they will invite her back next year! - Michigan Jazz Week
Washington Post, Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival
Magic Is Taylor - Made at Women in Jazz Festival
By Mike Joyce Special to The Washington Post, Monday, May 15, 2006
If you're going to kick off the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival alone, playing a pair of piano tributes -- one to the event's namesake, the other to founder and guiding light Billy Taylor -- isn't a bad way to go. Of course having Taylor, who recently said he was retiring from public performances, join you for a bluesy coda is probably too much to ask.
Or is it?
Although always careful to keep the spotlight on festival headliners, the 85-year-old jazz legend couldn't turn down an invitation to sit beside pianist and composer Jessica Williams when the 11th edition of the festival got underway Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
The opportunity came moments after Williams performed several imaginatively harmonized solo piano pieces from a new suite she wrote in Taylor's honor. Among them was "Taylor's Triumph," an apt description of the festival itself. The duo's four-handed finale quickly proved a delight, with Williams and Taylor trading parts (and places on the piano stool). Initially Williams took the high road, favoring treble-register trills and triplets, while Taylor sustained a walking bass line with his left hand.
Jazz Journal International
This CD was designed as a tribute to Dr. Billy Taylor, the veteran jazz pianist who has been playing for 65 years now and is counted by Ms Williams as a friend. He has also booked her to play at various prestigious events and, as she puts it, they have spent time 'hanging out together for a few hours.' The music, all original compositions by Jessica, is played on a beautifully tuned and recorded concert grand and presents this particular pianist to best advantage. To best advantage because the fine instrument and clarity of the recording brings her into the listening room and it is quite an experience.
One of the very few pianists that genuinely seem not to need bass and drum support, she is her own rhythm section, stabbing out a solid and at times quite complex bass line as she weaves patterns of vigorous improvisation with her right hand. Billy's Theme No 1 and The Soul Doctor introduce really soulful lines and blues phrasing that is the essence of good jazz.
So comprehensive is the solo playing here that it seems at times that she has an invisible bass player locked in under her left hand. Lightness of touch and rippling lines are heard at the end of The Soul Doctor, offering a fresh dimension to an already comprehensive recital.
Blues For BT has Jessica digging deeply into her own blues interpretation and here again that invisible bass player pops up from the dark low regions of the piano keyboard; few pianists can manage as full a rocking bass line as this while still inventing sturdily in the treble region.
It is a very fine piece of piano blues but there are times when you would swear that at least two musicians are playing.
All of this musician's previous releases have been impressive but this is one of the most comprehensive and vivid solo piano recitals I have heard and far surpasses even her own earlier attempts at recording alone at the keyboard.
The two Spontaneous Composition And Improvisation pieces are precisely that; she builds up an impressive musical structure from just a simple starting motive and expands and hones it for just less than 20 minutes without boring the listener or losing his interest and attention for one second. Not this listener at any rate.
Here's a CD which I feel sure buyers will return to again and again for many years to come. - Derek Ansell, Jazz Journal International
Donald Elfman for All About Jazz
Dr. Billy Taylor, before his brilliant career as an educator and a spokesperson for jazz, was a smart and accomplished player. As a student of Art Tatum, he developed a beautiful facility at the keyboard that suggested steeping in both the blues and the 'European tradition'.
Jessica Williams herself reflects that blend, finding a stunning technical virtuosity, a solid grounding in the jazz and blues tradition and a classical approach to the wonders of the keyboard. Her tribute to the good doctor is beautifully subtle yet dazzling in its mode of expression.
The tunes are all her own but they quietly and definitively put Billy Taylor in the spotlight. The music swings straightforwardly but with an ease that calls to mind Taylor's grace and elegance.
Both versions of 'Billy's Theme' are breathtakingly intimate and deeply soulful. There's a uniformity to the music here - it almost never rises above a whisper, but never lacks for emotional power. Complementing Williams' originals are two extended pieces both called 'Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation'. It is to Williams' brilliant credit that these works flow seamlessly to and from the other pieces. - Donald Elfman for All About Jazz
Review by Scott Yanow, author, The All Music Guide
Jessica Williams has been one of the top jazz pianists of the past 20 years. Her technique is formidable, her touch is relaxed, she displays a strong wit and, although Thelonious Monk is a key influence (she can sound just like Monk whenever she likes), Ms. Williams has her own sound within the modern mainstream of jazz.
Billy's Theme is a set of originals dedicated to Dr. Billy Taylor, an inspiration to all jazz pianists and one of jazz's most articulate spokesmen during the past half-century. Although Jessica Williams does not try to play in Taylor's style, the laidback approach that she displays here hints at him, and he must have been quite pleased at this solo recital.
Billy Taylor wrote the hit 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel Like To Be Free.' Williams starts off the set with the answer, called 'Finally Free.' Other selections include 'The Soul Doctor,' 'Blues For BT' and 'Taylor's Triumph.' The music swings while being explorative and is full of subtle surprises and little bits of sly wit.
Billy's Theme is the only the latest of Jessica Williams' rewarding recordings. In addition to her work for various labels, she has put out around a couple of dozen privately issued CDs on her own Red and Blue label. For information on her large and colorful discography, check out www.jessicawilliams.com. - Scott Yanow, author, The All Music Guide
It rocks! Her music sometimes approaches the exhiliration of a Keith Jarrett solo concert in its rushes of spontaneous discovery...Thomas Conrad of Jazz Times
Adam Greenberg, All Music Guide
Jessica Williams is at the forefront of jazz in the nontraditional setting: leaving the nightclubs in favor of concert halls. Billy Taylor was one of the first to go in that direction well before her, however.
Here, she pays tribute to the fine pianist with a series of original compositions.
The sound is incredible, recorded in a home studio but cleverly given a proper concert sheen. This is jazz on the way to third stream. The playing is impeccable, and the compositions both evocative and well crafted. At times contemplative, at times cheerful, at times bluesy, it's all covered in here.
For modern piano jazz, this is quite possibly one of the best releases of the last few years. - Adam Greenberg, All Music Guide
John Henry, Audiophile Audition
I feel that Jessica Williams is not just the top female jazz pianist around today but one of the top jazz pianists period. She's recorded a steady stream of fine albums over the years (we just reviewed two of them here, as a matter of fact). But this one is a bit different on several counts. First, it is a tribute to one of the major spokesmen for jazz, plus being an outstanding pianist and jazz educator. I'm speaking of Dr. Billy Taylor - the latest of whose achievements over the past half century has been the hosting of the first jazz series on national TV in decades - The PBS Jazz Legends.
Williams has been involved in several jazz events with Taylor and he has supported her career. So she decided to do an entire album of her own compositions - all dedicated to Taylor. Next, she decided to do it on solo unaccompanied piano - a courageous act right there. Nearly all eight selections are lyrical and rather laid back, without what she calls in her booklet notes the 'flying fingers' style. But that doesn't stop them from swinging mightily - as in the down home funk of her The Soul Doctor.
The two lengthy Spontaneous Compositions are fascinating improvisations; I preferred them to most of Keith Jarrett's on-the-spot improvisations. The last thing that makes this CD somewhat different is the recording approach. Williams produced the album herself, and since Billy Taylor has done so much to expand jazz from the jazz club to the concert hall - similar to the longtime efforts of fellow pianist John Lewis - she wanted to capture a more 'classical' sound. To do so she placed the mikes some distance back as for recording classical piano, rather than sticking them close into the strings as for most jazz recordings. The result is a rich and full sound without the emphasis on the percussive aspect. She also uses a Knabe concert grand rather than the usual Steinway, resulting in a more pleasant high treble to my ears. - John Henry, Audiophile Audition
Tony Augarde, Music International
Billy Taylor is best known - at least in Britain - for his trio's recording of his composition I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free, which has been popularized as the signature tune for BBC Television's long-running 'Film' programme. But, of course, Billy Taylor has done much more than that, as Jessica Williams' sleeve-note reminds us: playing with the likes of Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; acting as house pianist at Birdland and as musical director and presenter for numerous radio and TV shows; and constantly involved in jazz education.
Jessica's affection for Billy finds expression in this tribute album, recorded at Jessica's home studio. She says she wanted to capture the feel of the concert hall, and the recording achieves a wonderfully sonorous ambience. She also says 'I took the ‘less is more' approach and prefer it to the ‘flying fingers' style so popular in this competitive age'. Jessica is quite capable of playing a hundred notes per second but she here adopts an unshowy approach which is nevertheless eloquent.
When I saw Jessica in concert a few years ago, it seemed as if the piano was an instrument designed expressly for her, as she had such a rapport with it (and she appears particularly fond of the tinkling high notes).
Her playing has echoes of Erroll Garner, Gershwin, Debussy and many other pianists, but her style is entirely her own. She composes instantaneously at the piano, producing rhapsodic melodies which provide worthy tributes to Billy Taylor. The word is often misused, but this is a truly beautiful album.
- Tony Augarde, Music International
Jack Bowers for All About Jazz
One great pianist deserves another. Billy Taylor, who needs no introduction to jazz fans around the world, is the honoree (tributary?) in this solo recital by longtime friend and ardent admirer Jessica Williams, who may need an introduction to some but can easily hold her own against the most accomplished pianists one cares to name.
As she has shown on many occasions (and recordings), Williams is a virtuoso with either hand or both. Her agile right hand always finds exactly the right note or chord to brighten any musical scenario, while her left is capable of sculpting cavernous counterpoints worthy of such masters as Oscar Peterson or Dave McKenna. Beyond that, she plays with irresistible spontaneity, warmth and tastefulness, which is all that one can ask from a jazz pianist.
While Taylor is an able composer, Williams decided that this tribute would be her gift to him. So all the compositions are hers, each one designed to underline an aspect of Taylor's multifaceted personality. Among them are two spontaneous compositions/improvisations, and two themes that depict Taylor's unquenchable self-assurance and enthusiasm. There's even a 'Blues for BT' and a revitalizing ballad that salutes his stature as The Soul Doctor.
A word must be said about the clarity and beauty of the recording itself. To capture the feeling of a concert hall, Williams writes, she placed the microphones for the piano in a classical way, near but outside the piano, thus achieving a more open sound with its full transient overtones and its rich, deep bass tones.
The sound on the record is pure, crystal-clear and quite often breathtaking.
Breathtaking also describes Williams' performance, which she says is 'some of [her] favorite work' - and that covers a lot of territory. Of the recital, she says, 'I think it's a fitting tribute to a man for all seasons, a man with a heart of gold and a soul as timeless as this music called jazz.'
I's also a heartwarming love letter from one remarkable musician to another, and a splendid soliloquy to boot. Billy must be highly pleased with the outcome, and so should you.- Jack Bowers, All About Jazz
Billy's Theme - Review by John Ferrara
Personnel: Jessica Williams - Solo Piano - Tracks: Finally Free; Billy's Theme No. 1; The Soul Doctor; Blues for BT; Taylor's Triumph; Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation No. 1; Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation No. 2; Billy's Theme No. 2
The art of traditional solo piano is one, I believe, that is slipping away. In the hands of a capable seasoned player such as Jessica Williams, the best elements of that art are preserved and brought together with the release of 'Billy's Theme', which Ms.Williams has dedicated to the venerable pianist and educator Billy Taylor. All of the eight entries on the CD are original compositions by Jessica.
When I saw the reference to Billy Taylor and read the liner notes, I was reminded of the many times in the early sixties that I was privileged to have seen Billy at the old Hickory House in NYC in a trio context. The bar was circular and surrounded the musicians so that you could experience their interplay and artistry at a very close and personal level. As a young pianist myself, I was influenced by Billy Taylor not only in a musical sense but in a professional way as well. Mr. Taylor always exhibited a respect for the audience and established a musical rapport with them that is very memorable to me.
As to the music and the performance on this CD, both are at a very high level and clearly demonstrate a great depth of experience and musicality. You do not get to play like this unless you have done a lot of gigs, good and bad, and gleaned the best parts of solo piano from the great artists of the past; Ms. Williams clearly is a pianist not just to be listened to in a one dimensional way, but emotionally experienced via the sounds she coaxes from the seven foot Knabe grand she plays here.
Her extended versions of the tunes are like symphonic tone poems exhibiting not only a musical elegance but an artistry that makes full use of the piano keyboard. She also has a great command of dynamics as well as skillful pedaling technique.
On the first entry, 'Finally Free', based in F major, the initial statement of the melody is performed rubato – a beautiful piece. The chord progression starts with a 'Come Rain or Come Shine' pattern. The melody is restated at a steady medium tempo. On the third chorus the pianist then walks the bass in the left hand (listen to the ghost notes she plays emulating a bass player) along with a very creative and technically impressive improvisation in the right hand. By the fourth chorus she switches to a flawlessly executed Errol Garner stride style. The ending is an extended coda with treble runs sounding harp-like and a final gospel cadence with the piano emanating pulsating waves like a string orchestra at the final F chord; the title really has significance here.
'Billy's Theme No. 1' actually reminds me of another Billy - Billy Strayhorn. The intro starts off with right hand musings over an A pedal point (listen to that initial low A on the seven foot monster. Why doesn't my Aeolian upright piano sound like that?) After the intro there is a dramatic tonal shift to Ab7sus4 and a quick preparatory Dmaj7 - the tune then begins with a Dbmaj7 Dmaj7 Cmaj7 Dbmaj7 constant structure pattern (think of 'You And The Night And The Music' melodic phrase) and then quickly modulates through several key centers. Within a few short bars, the tune shifts tonalities from Db to Eb to C - very Strayhorn-like. The pianist's voicings are very full and tension rich. As an example, the D7 has an Ab triad superimposed over it – like Brubeck uses with his giant hands on his old solo recordings. In this case the Ab triad adds the b5 and b9 to the sound with the added sparkle of a superimposed major triad. The tune offers the pianist a vehicle to build some impressive improvisations as well as steadily building upon the rich and varied chord patterns. It illustrates the technical ability and theoretical knowledge fine musicians like Ms. Williams possess and can all too easily be missed by the casual listener.
The 'Soul Doctor' is a minor tune which (aptly) has a very soulful quality. The intro has a modal sound to it. It also contains some technically dazzling right hand passages flying over the harmonies. The tune goes into a slow to moderate stride performance (think of 'St. James Infirmary' with a hip feel); a nice contrast to the preceding material.
'Blues for BT' in G is just that – a medium tempo blues with walking bass and right hand improvisation which swings nicely. A word about the walking bass style – it is one that is unfortunately being lost and also very difficult to perform with the right hand playing over it. Again, the pianist here shows another skillful facet of her playing.
'Taylor's Triumph' is a 3/4 romp centered over an A-7 D7 pattern. 'Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation' (1 and 2) are extended forays into harmonic and melodic pastures redolent with musical ideas. In some portions it sounds like two pianists performing. Listen closely to her impressive pedaling technique – hints of the classical influence are definitely here. The final track 'Billy's Theme No. 2' is a recapitulation of the 1st theme but with enough differences to make it a totally different performance. The pianist stretches out here with some inventive and extended improvisations. This is personally my favorite track, although it is hard to choose one – they are all very special.
If you would like to own a solo piano recording that generates the colors, styles and sounds of some of the great jazz pianists of the past, this is one you should have. I must admit I had not heard Jessica Williams until writing this review. There is no doubt as to her pianistic and compositional ability; she has truly given Billy Taylor and the listener a musical gift with this offering. - John Ferrara
Date: Tue, 02 May 2006 - WOW - Got the CD's today. WOW describes it. I've only listened to the Billy Taylor one. Beautiful. One of the first tracks has what sounds like Leroy Vinegar's bass on it. Wonderful music. I can't wait to listen to the other four disks! I'm digitizing my records and running my CDs to the same hard drive as well. I don't want to take a chance on losing any of this great music and emotion. Thanks again, Peace and love to all of you, Mike ___
Date: Mon, 1 May 2006 - I received the 10 CD's and I already listened to 7 of them. All of them are fantastic!! My favorite ones so far are The Standards Vol.1 and Time To Burn. Your original composition 'Love and Hate' on the Unity CD was beautiful. Every number surprises me with your unbelievable technique & improvisation.You are right up there with Tatum & Peterson! I look forward to ordering additional CD's in the very near future. Sincerely, Arnie ___
Date: Mon, 1 May 2006 - Dear Jessica, I got your package...thank you for signing everything (nice touch), thanks for the extra disc, thanks for telling me to buy Billy's theme (a classic), listened to some of the live solo stuff - so far and it is all brilliant. keep in touch, Mike ___
Date: Mon, 01 May 2006 - WOW! Incredible music. Thanks. The three new CDs provided a lovely accompaniment to a rainy weekend in Des Moines. The recordings were fantastic. Thanks so much. Abe ___
Date: Sat, 29 Apr 2006 - Jessica, FYI the CDs arrived today. Pretty quick service considering how busy you must be getting them all mailed out. I played them all immediately - what better way to spend a rainy afternoon in the Seattle area? - and love them all. Everything you said about these disks being killer was true. I knew you were not bragging. Merely a statement of fact by one who ought to know! And I am really delighted with the cover work on the Standards album. Elaine's photos and their layout are just excellent and present a great feeling of joy and vitality. Peace, love, happiness, and everything good to you! Diane ___
Date: Wed, 28 Jun 2006 - CD reviewed - Billy's Theme - Review = In one word: Terrific! - Dawn ___
Liner Notes by Jessica Williams: Dr Billy Taylor has done so much for music in general and jazz in particular during his 65 years in the business that to write about him here is futile; an exercise limited both space constraints and common sense. I CAN tell you that his very first gig in NYC was with Ben Webster. Ben invited Billy to audition for his group, and two days later, the pianist began his professional career with Webster's quartet, which also included drummer Big Sid Catlett and bassist Charlie Drayton, at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street in New York City, alternating sets with the Art Tatum Trio.
Billy wound up becoming a student of Tatum's.
When you have Art Tatum as a teacher, you're almost certainly destined for great things.
Many of you who have become familiar to some extent with my own career are aware that I decided to get myself out of the dark, dingy, often dangerous and always unhealthy jazz clubs and into the concert halls and churches, art centers and colleges. Well, Billy did just that 35 years before I did. Coming from a family of professionals (his father was a dentist and his mother a schoolteacher...they encouraged their son's creativity), his self-esteem and his belief in jazz as a 'legitimate' art form led him to go in a much different direction than many of his contemporaries. He brought dignity and respect to the term 'jazz musician' and I'm inspired by his example.
So are many many thousands of his fans.
And he's played everywhere except on Mars!
He's written for symphony orchestras, toured the world many many times with his trio or as a soloist, and also worked as a guest soloist with almost every major symphony in the world. He's brought jazz to countless countries as an American Ambassador. He's brought jazz to NPR and NBC and BET and many other TV and radio stations throughout the world.
During the 90's Dr. Billy Taylor was named Artistic Advisor for Jazz to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Since 1994, under the umbrella of Jazz at the Kennedy Center, Taylor has developed one acclaimed concert series after another including the Art Tatum Pianorama, the Louis Armstrong Legacy series, the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, Beyond Category, Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead and the Jazz Ambassadors Program.
I've been lucky enough to be asked by him to play for the Art Tatum Pianorama AND to appear several times at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. He's been in the background, working miracles for me. And the last time I met him at the Kennedy Center (I was there playing a Piano Summit with Bruce Barth and Eric Reed) we wound up 'hanging out' for a few hours, talking about Music and jazz and health food, herbs and pets and family.
It was a night I cherish, and he'll always be in my thoughts when I play this Music.
This album is my musical tribute to Dr Billy Taylor. I wanted to capture the feel of the concert hall, so I miked the piano in a 'classical' way; I usually have the microphones very close, inside the piano. I like the open sound, with it's full transient overtones and rich deep bass tones.
The Music speaks for itself, and it's some of my favorite work. I took the 'less is more' approach and prefer it to the 'flying fingers' style so popular in this competitive age. All of the compositions are new, and I think it's a fitting tribute to a man for all seasons, a man with a heart of gold and a soul as timeless as this Music called JAZZ.
-Jessica Williams, Monterey Bay, California, 1 Mar 2006
Artist's Personal Review of this CD: