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Following Monk: Jessica Williams by Owen Cordle

October 25, 2007, Durham, NC: Jessica Williams is regally tall, with large hands and long fingers. She plays the piano with little discernable effort, a hat trick that belies all the intricate counterpoint, walking bass lines, chordal clusters and melodic spring boarding that appears. Rhythm is everywhere in her performances, as it should be in a solo tribute called “A Nod to Mary Lou (Williams) and (Thelonious) Monk.” The program, heard in Duke University’s Nelson Music Room, was part of the school’s six week, 18-event “Following Monk” series.

Williams (no kin to Mary Lou Williams) opened with “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” the Frank Loesser tune from “Guys and Dolls.” The performance began in a romantic, Bill Evans mood, passed through a zone of churchy, Monk-like harmony and stride rhythm and emerged in Erroll Garner territory, sunny right hand figures splashing over a steady four-four in the left hand. We were hooked.

With “(I Don’t Stand a) Ghost of a Chance,” which Williams said she learned from one of Monk’s albums, she delved deep into Monk’s sound; cranky, stop-and-go rhythms, dissonant chords, angular melodic intervals, and a cluster or two nailed with the elbow and forearm. Her “Monk’s Hat” came next, an original with an old-timey church sound. Later, she played a blues that showed Monk’s connection with the church again. The most powerful performance of the concert, it included a walking bass line or walking thirds in the left hand and climactic choruses of block chords in the right – plus passages where she reached inside the piano and plucked the strings. The rocking beat also conjured up images of Mary Lou Williams’ Kansas City days. It was the kind of performance that could have gone on for hours and never lost its rhythmic seduction.

An untitled original in a classical music vein saluted Mary Lou Williams, and then there was Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” which modulated into his “Ruby, My Dear.” To end the concert, Williams took a couple of requests from the audience.

Throughout the concert, Williams proved fearless and secure in her adventurousness and completely at ease with the audience, as if we were old friends listening to her explore new intervals and angles at home. - Owen Cordle


Ms. Williams:

What can one say; last night's absolutely brilliant concert with your remarkable "pick up" sidemen, and in particular, Jeff Chambers on bass, was certainly one of the finest trio performances I believe that have ever seen -- and I have been attending these things, from the early trio days of Peterson and Evans in the early 60s, up through today's performers like Kenny Werner, Meldhau, and Kellaway.  Yes I, like you, am about to reach my 60's but I entreat you to occasionally travel down from Canada to return to Yoshi's --  you clearly have a devoted fan base here, judging from last night's attendance and the audience's rapt respect. 

I would like to think that you also felt the performance to be special, but I recall years ago on two separate occasions when you had the same effect on me.  One being, when you were playing at Yoshi's many years ago, at the former location, when there were only about 20 of us remaining in the audience for the late evening performance  The fact the house was practically empty at that late hour made absolutely no difference; it cast a spell like your work always seems to do.  The second occasion being the solo Maybeck concert where your playing met its equal in the hall itself.

So I have come to realize that any one of your performances likely leaves this sort of magical impression; but I have to say, last night's concert really left a lasting impact on me.  We may all be "one," as you stated, but all of us need periodic reminding from a teacher, like you, of what is fundamentally important.  You are one of the 'givers."

I know your personal compositions must run into the hundreds, but I was particularly struck with an absolutely beautiful Spanish piece you played in the middle of the 2nd set.  I know this is a long shot, but if there is any way you might recall the title, and if it has been recorded by you, could you let me know.  Also if you can similarly recall the titles of other of your work last night, I would love to know if these compositions could be found on one or more of your CD's--although I will surely miss the interaction between yourself and Mr. Chambers. 

Thanks again for a transforming, magical evening.  Don't let the proposed ranch up in Saskatoon  (sp?) keep you from coming around here every once in awhile; share us with the Brits. 

John Bix, Oakland, CA.


I am a big fan of Jessica Williams; I believe that history will regard her as one of the really major pianists of this time. She had a thorough classical training but turned to jazz as a teenager. She became house pianist at Keystone Korner, the major jazz club (now long gone) in San Francisco, in 1978. She's lived in Portland, OR, Seattle, Denmark, and then San Diego in recent times. She's made many albums since the 70s; most of them are no longer available. Her solo recording at Maybeck (on Concord) is a masterpiece, I think she's one of the few truly great solo players today. She's at her best in that setting or in a trio. Her playing is virtuoso but never emptily flashy; her distinctive style is sometimes reminiscent of McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane. But there is a deep strain of jazz history that also reminds me of Jimmy Rowles and Oscar Peterson. Her playing is both heartfelt and exceptionally accurate. - Darius Brotman