Songs for a New Century
My new CD for Origin Arts, street date around Apr 22, 2008
"Songs for a New Century" is what I'm hearing and seeing now, all the time, under the surface of everything I do or say or feel, every day. It's the undercurrent of my life. I feel that it's my best work so far in terms of clarity, focus, and depth of feeling. But then, I can never say that for sure, as I'm too close to it. I remember something that Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington said when asked which of his albums was his personal favorite: "The next one!"
Perhaps it's my favorite because of its optimistic tone. After September 11, 2001, the universal key of life for me and many others, at least those in tune with the laws of nature and physics, was D minor. I have a form of synesthesia, the not-uncommon ability to see colors when one hears sounds. The one color I saw that day was orange - exactly matching our Homeland Security's usual threat level, i.e. "code orange" - or yellow. F major is brown to me, and E minor has always looked red. A minor is blue-green, and C is a cream color. I've never been sure if others with synesthesia see these same colors but I suspect similarities.
There is no doubt that, existentially at least, 9-11 was an orange, D minor event. It looked that way to me. It sounded that way to me. Its place in my heart is coded in that color. I had never before thought that orange could be a color of unimaginable sadness and grief. But it stayed that way for me until quite recently. I suppose I was grieving, and not just for the victims and heroes of 9-11. I was grieving for America, for the very idea of America.
Pianistically, I've always gravitated to "open keys" with brilliant colors. If I were a painter, I would be considered a "colorist". I hear in primaries. B-flat or E-flat, while the keys of choice for many "jazz musicians", have never struck a chord in me. This is perhaps unusual because some of my main influences in American Classical Music (Jazz) have been saxophonists and trumpeters. Particularly John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
To be sure, there are pieces that I've written that belong in these keys, and so I have always let the music choose it's own key, just as I let the melody-line choose its own motion. Also, my art always cycles throughout every key and every color. But "my" keys are E, A, D, G, F, C, and their minor equivalents. E-flat minor does certainly sing, though, and D-flat major remains positively mellifluous to me.
These observations are generalizations, but I mention them here because they comprise the primary colors and keys of "Songs for a New Century".
And now, some years after "The Day the World Changed", I hear and sense and see and smell happiness and hope again. I am so very hopeful that our country becomes the dream it CAN be rather than the nightmare that still lurks in the shadows. This Music is my own very small but personally significant contribution to the re-building and re-fortification of that new America that most of us long for.
The "painting" still contains Orange, but not nearly as much. Now, G major is here! To me it is the color of the sky when it is sunny and cloudless. And earth-brown F major has returned, too, with patches of green, like grasses growing in a once-barren landscape.
G major is so much with me, which is a very good sign, and finds its joyous expression in two personal favorites rendered here: Fantasia and If Only. They are very new right now, and will remain in a state of becoming as long as I play them. The new that I'm hearing is so vastly different from the old, and the shift in thinking so profound, that it seemed like alien territory to me for awhile. But in many ways, it's full circle, back to my childhood, my years at Peabody Conservatory, and my youthful search for the creative center of my existence. This has been my life of late. It's the return to form in it's truest sense. It's still improvised, extemporized, and spontaneous, while relying almost entirely on emotional power, visceral content, and heartfelt longing. I can not explain the feeling I have while it's happening to me. It is like "automatic playing". It has to do with grace and intent and genuine amazement. I am amazed it is happening. I am hypnotized.
Take If Only for an example. Literally simple beyond belief, it could be played by any proficient third-year piano student. But the density, the gravity, the fulcrum of the piece is not it's melody or its chords: they're wonderful but not the center. The center is its raw emotion. Emotion of such intensity can only be expressed on an instrument that responds to the slightest variations and the smallest permutations of touch. Since touch and tone production have become so central to my playing, I should share a few discoveries that might contribute to someone's similar quests.
It has been noticed (and remarked upon, not always favorably) that I sit very low - a mere 16 inches off of the ground at last measurement, with a strong inclination to go even lower if my chair would only allow it - because I do not wish to push the keys down.
I neither wish to push the keys down or "strike" the keys. I want instead to pull the keys down, thus imparting an almost imperceptible weight - or gravity - to the sound each key can produce.
Likewise, I want to use my fingers for the strength or softness, the loudness or almost inaudible quietness, of each note. I NEVER use my upper arms and shoulders for "power" anymore. Older videos of me playing exasperate me. They are studies in awkwardness to me. The fingers have to lift higher to attain maximum expressivity, and this can't be easily done by sitting high up. When I sit on a piano bench these days I can not believe that I ever made any real music way up there!
And since I never read music (I do write it, very, very fast) because I believe that one can not have their ears and eyes fully focused and "on" at one time, I always remove the piano's music stand. I can't understand how anyone can possibly think that they might play to their optimum potential while reading a blueprint or a roadmap or a novel. If they don't know the music, and are reading it off of a page, how in the world can we be expected to believe in it when we hear it? Obviously the musician playing it can not even remember it, much less play it with total immersion!
Similarly, I remove the fall-board, that piece of wood that your fingers bump into sometimes, the piece of wood that comes down to meet the keys. With the fall-board off, you can play much closer to the fulcrum of the key. Even onto the unfinished wooden part of the key. And, amazingly (but not surprisingly when you think about it) the sounds one can get are inaccessible when the fall-board is left on. I have been accused of disassembling the piano before playing it. The truth is that, for me, those parts are superfluous - even impediments - to playing.
I also "lower the flap" on the hood. At full-stick, the piano looks longer, and that's nice for appearances, but the main reason is that the sound now has another foot-and-a-half to bounce off of, and it is deflected down around the player. I am very careful when I stand up so I don't knock myself out on the overhang.
And all three pedals are fundamental. necessary. Absolutely indispensable. The soft pedal is my friend. Some critics say I over-use it. That's their opinion and they're entitled to it. The middle pedal is for, among other things, those beautiful drones and single notes that ring out and hold while other staccato notes fly by with precision and clarity. The best-kept secret of the piano is the middle pedal. Its absence on some Bosendorfers is unforgivable!
These are not things I worked on or even consciously understood. They were things that just happened. The low chair was inspired first by a fascination with Glenn Gould. I wanted to try that. It worked. But it is different for me: I need a certain kind of back to that chair, and it needs to fit the curvature of my spine so that I can lift both legs out in front of me at times and simply fly, feet-first. There seems no speed-limit in this somewhat ridiculous posture, and I'm going to continue pursuing these unusual-looking activities for as long as they serve me. My present chair is a height-adjustable, swivel, armless office chair with a bit of padding for comfort. 16 inches is its lowest limit and that will be addressed on my next visit to Office Max.
The focusing of powerful feeling through such a stripped-down vehicle is breath-taking to me. I don't care if it sounds or looks like this or that, like so-and-so, like me or not like me. It is right because it allows and encourages my heart to beat in symphony with all of life, and pour forth like a river, unimpeded by fall-boards and high perches.
So here we are. It is NOW, no longer 9-11, and even if it's in D minor (as are three of these entries) it is pure joy and for this I am so grateful.
Seeking Beauty and Truth in Music for the healing of people, for the healing of the self. MY self included. This is the intent of my Music now, as it is the intent of my very life. It must be clear and true and without the shackles of a tired and unhealthy past: the "hang", the promoter's greedy whims, the record producer's "brilliant" ideas, the critic's pompous decree, the rule of art by committee, and the general sense that being a Musician is somehow about being popular, accepted, approved of, and lauded by all.
That is no way to live. That is no way to make Art! There is no return in making billions of manic notes spin through the air like so many kernels of popped corn. That's exactly how I feel when I hear that kind of "music". I feel assaulted, I feel as if someone is hitting me with thousands of pieces of flying popcorn. It doesn't hurt, but it isn't pleasant, and it's a waste of time.
And of popcorn.
One lesson I've learned is directly from Star Wars' Yoda: "TRY, and you will not DO. There is no trying. There is only DO and NOT DO." All doing comes from love, and all love comes from a heart filled with peace. Conversely, all trying comes from the drive to compete, impress, and garner love. To get love we will usually always try, and we will usually always fail, because love is in one's heart, and letting it be free to speak and fly and soar is the only way to do anything creative. Setting it free is the wall and the obstacle we have to face. It is enormous. It is daunting. And when that is done, one must live with, and love, the results. It doesn't much matter what anyone critical or jaded or invested in reactionary thought-patterns will say or think.
It matters what a child will think, what a loved one will feel, what a stressed person will take away from it, what a sick person will get from it to help them heal themselves. It matters because we are human and frail and mortal, and that we will all, at the end, be the same ...as if we are not already... The Beatles said it on Abbey Road:
"And, in the end, the love you take
is equal to the love you make."
All of us have been changed by the events of our world, and the events of the past decade have left many of us off-balance, seeking deeper meaning in our life. Love is the answer - we know this - but our material world is not always kind to affairs of the heart. It doesn't matter, it can't matter to the true artist. We make art because it MUST be made. We play because it is our one reliable source of inexhaustible wonder. And we ALL must believe in love as a force, a force as real and as immutable and as universal as gravity or electromagnetism, because it is literally what binds the planet and its peoples together. It may not look like it sometimes, but we really do love each other. Otherwise, we'd be extinct by now!
Here is my Music now, at this very moment, with its strengths and its weaknesses - which I suppose are my strengths and weaknesses. This is a very transparent album, from me, to you. It pleases me most of the time, and I hope it pleases you. It also speaks to me of new ideas and things that need to be done next. It is one more step. I really hope you enjoy it. It IS for you, from the depth of my heart.
It's my way to finally start off this Century.
Jessica Williams' newest album for Origin Arts, "Songs for a New Century", more than lives up to its proud title with 8 originals by Jessica Williams and one seldom-heard chestnut by Sonny Rollins. The music is as new as the 21st Century and quite unlike ANYTHING Ms Williams has committed to CD before: in a program that spans all of the emotions, from longing, sadness, wonder, and optimism, to melting love, there are times when one may wonder if it's "just a piano" they're hearing. On "Toshiko", she manages to coax the sounds of a Koto or a Shamisen out of the instrument, all without any overdubs. Her heart-breaking "Fantasia" is a strong reminder of her extensive conservatory training and extraordinary touch, often compared to Bill Evans (and, more recently, to Glenn Gould) by JazzTimes critic Doug Ramsey. Still firmly rooted in her nearly 50 year love-affair with jazz, she offers her deeply-felt tribute to the memory of the great pianist Oscar Peterson, and rounds out the mesmerizing program with her original compositions containing soaring lines and rapid-fire sheets-of-sound that were inspired by the ground-breaking work of one of her strongest and earliest influences, saxophone giant John Coltrane.
Remembering that jazz has always embraced - if sometimes reluctantly - new forms, we're amazed at the sheer BREADTH of music presented here, all in a concentrated ONE hour of continuously stimulating and moving revelation.
The recording sound is wide, resonant, and remarkably "present". Recorded on her new 7-foot Mason & Hamlin concert grand piano on state-of-the-art recording equipment in her own home studio, without any constraints or time limitations, she has created something simultaneously beautiful AND ground-breaking, something that fully lives up to its name and its scope.
"Songs for a New Century" is an album of wonders, music so colorful and hypnotic that you'll see it as well as hear it!
"Songs for a New Century"
1 Empathy (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
2 Toshiko (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
3 Fantasia (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
4 Song for a Baby (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
5 Blessing in Disguise (Sonny Rollins)
6 Lament (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
7 Dear Oscar (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
8 Spoken Softly (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
9 If Only (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
Total time: 1:00:57
ALL TRACKS recorded during the last 2 weeks of Jan 2008, direct to disc, 2-track stereo