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Interview: EMP Live

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An interview with the Experience Music Project of the JBL Theatre in Seattle WA (


When critics write about Jessica Williams, a lot of superlatives appear: most accomplished jazz pianist to emerge in the nineties, greatest original pianist alive today, one of the swinging-est pianists anywhere. After even a small taste of her music, it's clear the hyperbole is warranted.

Jessica began taking piano lessons at age 4. She was classically trained at the respected Peabody Conservatory of Music, where at the age of 12 her teacher, impressed by her virtuosity, gave her a copy of Dave Brubeck's recording of "Take Five." It wasn't long before she was improvising on Rachmaninov and copying solos by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy and other Blue Note artists of the early sixties. She graduated at 16, and was soon playing professional piano with the Philly Joe Jones Quintet.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1977, Jessica became the house pianist at Keystone Korner. Opening for such greats as Bill Evans, Art Blakey, Sarah Vaughan and McCoy Tyner, Jessica also played with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Stan Getz, Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, Charlie Haden, Jackie McLean, Tony Williams, Eddie Harris, and Leroy Vinnegar.

Steeped in the bebop tradition, Jessica Williams' intimate and dynamic style is uniquely her own. But careful listening to her music reveals a cross-section of historical jazz influences. Present in her music is the highly technical and rhythmic flexibility of stride pianist James P. Johnson, the harmonic agility and swing of Art Tatum, the "homemade" essence of Thelonius Monk and the force and sensitivity of Bill Evans.

You have an impressive catalog of over 25 albums, recorded mainly for small labels. What prompted you to start your own label, Red and Blue Records?

I value my music more highly than I ever did when I was younger. Part of that self-increased valuation affects how I do business in the world - I stopped playing clubs, I don't drink, I don't smoke. This is wonderful. I run. I eat health foods. I live in a beautiful part of the planet. And I take care of myself... And I'm treated really well [at venues]. And that means the way that I'm treated and all things around that, including bottom line. It's fairer for me, because I've chosen to be fair with myself.

So that's why I started my record company: to see how this all worked, and so I could release the kind of music that I believed in. I used to have a record producer say to me, "I'd like you to this or this." So now I've gotten to a point with my music where record producers will come to me and ask if they can buy one of my products - records, they call it a product. They don't tell me what to do anymore. I can set a price. And it's much more equitable than it was ten years ago for me, even five.

In that sense the Internet gives me a little more control, too, over my life. I have a group of people, albeit small, six or seven hundred people, that are determinedly Jessica Williams buyers. They'll buy everything that I do. So I'm pretty assured that even if I do one run of CDs that I can sell them all.... That's kind of nice to know. Just send out a bulk e-mail with a blind carbon and the orders roll in. I hope they continue to; there is no guarantee.

You've been doing electronic music for a while now. I believe you call them e-instruments. How did you get started with that?

Twelve years ago I got a National Endowment grant. [It] required that I purchase a synthesizer. And I really didn't want to; I did it because it had something to do with the grant proposal.... I did what I said I was going to do. I got hooked on the technology; it took me a couple of weeks. I looked at it - I put it in my house and looked at it for a while.... I finally started to play it. And eventually it was like I didn't even want to play piano for the first year! So I got really good at sequencing and programming. I guess I have some sort of innate ability.

Here's what I would do. I would do the bass and the drums, and the trumpet, saxophone or the flute. And then I would sequence them and I would play along with the piano. Right? So I would have a quintet. I made these tapes and I would give them to people and this was ten or twelve years ago. [I'd] sell them at eight or ten dollars apiece. One of them wound up in Meridian, Mississippi at Peavey Corporation.... Somehow this tape made its way to the head of the software development division of Peavey. He said "You really have a talent for this. Would you like to write some sequences?" And the deal was: If I would write sequences, meaning demos for those synthesizers, they would potentially trade me my demos for their synthesizers. I wound up after a couple years of doing this having a living room full of synthesizers and equipment. It was great.

In Virtual Miles (which is actually [Red and Blue Records'] first release) there are no samples of Miles Davis. All it is, is that I tweaked all the [pre-existing sounds] in the machines. And I think you'd be pretty amazed with what I came up with. I tried to evoke Miles's spirit. Just using these machines and my piano. And I centered everything around the piano so there is a lot of piano soloing. But there are some great trumpet solos too - and it's actually a synthesizer....

I got a few e-mails accusing me that I'm trying to fool people. That it's not real. And it sounds real. They read the [liner] notes and realized it wasn't. And I just say, that's a philosophical problem. Let them deal with that. I just make the music. So it's a little bit controversial. You know?

I did a symphony. Since I couldn't afford to hire a symphony. I did it digitally. It's not something I think people are going to catch on to right away and because I work in one genre, which is jazz, and I'm known for that genre. A true artist or musician - no matter what they do - they want the freedom to play around.... A lot of the stuff I'm doing now is what I call "synth application music" - which is really like movie music. It's really cool music. It's very visual. It's very high tech, but it sounds like symphonic music because synthesizers only sound like what you program them to sound like.

There is no such thing as sounding like a synthesizer. A synthesizer can literally sound like a violin. That's what the word means. It synthesizes sounds. And it's really no different than a CD of a piano player because it's really a recording of a real instrument. It's just that one person has the control of that palette. And in this case the person is me. And I'm controlling a very large palette of sounds that I wouldn't ordinarily be able to afford to congregate. This one symphony I have is like 90 voices. It's three synthesizers, 32 different voices on each instrument. I just press a button and it all happens. And it takes months and months and months to sequence these things.

It's music that is a different side of me - not a lot of people know that. I'm just sort of saving the music for when I'm a little more financially able to release things. And I'm going to take a chance.

I've read that you believe music needs to evolve with the culture of the time. Is that happening now? What is the state of the jazz scene?

I'm not going to say that jazz is dead because any time that someone plays jazz it's alive. And anytime someone plays it well it's really alive. But I have this feeling that [if] some of the people I grew up with playing and knowing were alive today - they would never make it. One person I think of immediately is Dexter Gordon - long, tall, slow Dexter. He was so special and so real - and he was fast, but he wasn't flashy. And he wasn't young when he was at his peak. And I'm seeing a lot of really young kids playing this music. And that's really great, except that it's also a musical experience and there is a limit to the experience you can have when you are 17 or 14 or 21....

We've got to take the best from pop music and rock and apply it to jazz, meaning let the synthesizers in, let the experimentalists in, let everybody in, and hey, the best will rise to the top. And we'll have a lot healthier of an internal dialog in the community. As long as we make rules as to who can and who can't participate, we're not going to have a healthy music here. It's not going to last.

Jazz has been a male-dominated genre for a long time. How has that affected your career? Is that changing?

It was really hard 25 years ago when I first started playing the Keystone. "Tonight it's Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. But first here's Jessica Williams to open for them for 20 minutes." People used to throw ice cubes at me, literally. It was very difficult and I think that's probably why I started drinking a little too much and smoking like a fiend - because it was nerve wracking. It was terrifying for me and eventually I dealt with my anxiety by having a bunch of drinks and smoking and eventually the nerves went away. But all those years - they can take their toll. But I think I stopped just in time. I can have my health and my life back. But it was really hard on a lot of levels....

It's really hard. And any woman who would get into this music, really believe in it, just has to be conscious that there are going to be special problems along the way. And so I wouldn't discourage any woman, any woman who believed in something and she's got a gift - there is no way she should give it up. No way she should let it be taken from her or stopped.... Do it your own way. Play your music and believe in your song and don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Just believe in it and go forward and don't try to hang out with the guys and be one of them because it doesn't work (laughs). You know?

Many musicians talk about the emotional bond between themselves and the audience during a live performance. Does that same connection exist with a studio recording?

I think it can. When I go into a studio, I try to make it as much like playing live as I can. I've developed over the years a special relationship with the recording equipment so that when I perform it's with my whole heart and soul. I just put everything I have into it.... And I think that's part of the reason people just keep buying my records.... I don't even see myself as a pianist, I see myself as a musician. That's what I do. It's my function; it's my job. And so part of my job is also to heal people.

Today, I got a call from a woman in Florida.... She's got cancer and she's been fighting this cancer for three of four years now, and she's got this record of mine that I made a couple of years ago. It's a tribute to Bill Evans - Joyful Sorrow. And she says that it helps her cope with the pain. And that when she puts it on it seems like her brain floods with seratonin. And she feels elated. And she listens to it when she's taking this drug that makes her sick. When I get things like that I don't care how much money I'm making.... That to me is way more successful than being a millionaire. That just blows me out of the water.... If I only had one person like that in the world than I would have been a successful healer. Even if I just had ten, but I have hundreds and thousands of people that buy my music. So I'm really not bitchin'.

So yeah, I think you can have a real personal relationship with your audience.... I don't perform enough for a lot of people to see me a lot. So you have to make it with the recordings. And I don't think performance is dead, but there's not a whole lot of places for me to play.

You've been playing music since you were four. Can you talk about the impact music has had in your life?

I do know it is my most profound meditation. I don't remember what happens when I play. It's like I'm gone. It's my job. It's the only connection to the infinite that I have in my life that works really, really profoundly well.... I've been lucky in love in my life. I think that's the only other thing that comes close to this.

And that's what I felt like with Coltrane and the music he made. And Miles and the music he made. That's what made it special. That deep movement inside, that visceral feeling. Not the intellectual, not, "How did they do that? Oh, listen to how great that person is on their instrument." It was, "My God, listen to what they are making me feel." I mean, Coltrane...I was one of these kids, I had to buy everything he did. So I'd run home with the record. It was Love Supreme. I put it on and I was in my attic and I remember listening to it, and I started to cry. And I cried from the beginning to the end of that record. And now here it is, 35 years later and I listen to this record and I still cry. And it's because he touched the infinite. It doesn't matter what kind of music it is.

And that's the job musicians have had for the longest time - to move people. And now we have people who are going to show me they have more chops than God. And that's wonderful, but I'm not impressed. Because the only thing that impresses me is emotional content.

And that's where we are now as a culture, too. Because we have to decide now if we're going to feel everything that we are or we're going to shut down and we're going to be lampposts.... I think we've got to maintain a sense of humor and have a sense of family. So we can call each other up and say, "Help." And then we've got to put this stuff in our music and hope that people hear it. I think if we make a better mousetrap, they will come eventually. This is what I'm hoping. I'm banking on it.