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MUSIC REVIEW:Jessica Williams, Songs For A New Century

***** by Ric Bang, The Davis Enterprise

Pianist Jessica Williams' newest album is, as fans have come to expect, another winner.

This prolific artist - more than 40 releases, and still counting - has been at the top of the talent pool for nearly 50 years. Only a few musicians have achieved such longevity, and the amazing aspect is that she's better now than ever before.

In addition, Williams is more than a consummate pianist; she wrote all but one of the tunes in this solo piano release. The lone exception is Sonny Rollins' lesser-known "Blessings In Disguise," a soulful blues chart that Williams turns into a concert piece.

Her own tunes include three beautiful ballads ("Empathy," "Spoken Softly" and "If Only"); the Asian-tinged "Toshiko"; a "conservatory" - styled "Fantasia"; a lullaby with jazz overtones ("Song For A Baby"); "Lament," which has hints of the Aussie "Waltzing Matilda"; and a wonderful slow blues tribute to Oscar Peterson ("Dear Oscar").

All are done elegantly, but my favorite is "If Only," an absolutely gorgeous piece that grabs you by the throat.

The absence of any backup musicians forces the listener to focus completely on the solo artist. That can be quite a challenge for the performer; if the music isn't truly outstanding, the results can be boring.

But not to worry: Your attention won't waver from Williams. She's masterful.

Incidentally, the album liner notes - written by Williams - are informative, quite interesting and almost worth the price of the album alone.


***** from Thomas Conrad, JazzTimes, July/August 2008

Songs For A New Century is an intensely personal real-time document. Jessica Williams composed all but one of the nine pieces, and recorded the album herself. She says in the liner notes that this solo album "is what I'm hearing and seeing now ... This has been my life of late." It is about emerging from the grieving of the post-9/11 years and giving herself permission to hope again. (In musical terms, it is a broad transition from D minor to G major.)

More than most pianists, Williams understand how her instrument, treated properly, can be a direct conduit of emotion. She is technically sophisticated but no longer has any need to prove it. "If Only" is minimal in its chord movements and its melodic rise and fall. But Williams' subtle touch, sensitivity to tone production and soft, bright tremolos embody fragile hope. Another seemingly simple, quietly affirmational piece in G major is "Fantasia." It is a hovering suspension, with unceasingly solemn circular chords and a narrative that barely moves, but finally does move, inward, then upward.

In her articulate liner notes, Williams says of the album, "I feel that it's my best work so far in terms of clarity, focus, and depth of feeling." Artists are often wrong about such things. Not this time.


***** from Adam Greenberg, All Music Guide

She's a little bit late to release songs intended to kick off a new century, but Jessica Williams can be forgiven that as her music more than makes up for it. The album is actually titled as it is in celebration of Williams' emergence from a low time following the 9/11 attacks, and as such has a fairly upbeat tone throughout the proceedings. Aside from a stray Sonny Rollins composition (which Williams treats masterfully as a blues romp with some almost synth-like motifs thrown in), the compositions are all originals here, explorations of the interplay of sound and color (the color portion being a result of Williams' synesthesia). The album opens with "Empathy" in classic Williams form -- a heavy influence of Bill Evans present of course.

Using her own modifications to a piano, she then pulls the sparse sound of a steel-stringed koto out as an accompaniment in "Toshiko," but done without any other players or overdubs -- she's actually extending the sound of the piano itself. "Fantasia" comes across as classical, with hints of what may be "Ave Maria" threaded into its passages, and "Song for a Baby" is a simple run that switches between more Bill Evans chordal jazz and fast little Chick Corea-esque arpeggios. She stretches out with suggestions of stride piano in "Lament," and moves to a tribute to Oscar Peterson that reverently includes much of his style. The arpeggios come hot and heavy in "Spoken Softly," a bit of club-ready piano, and the album finishes out with a casual, sing-songy "If Only." Williams is arguably one of the greatest pianists around today, with outstanding versatility and breadth of compositional skill on top. This album easily sits as exhibit A of that argument.


***** from Dan McClenaghan, All About Jazz

Song for a New Century | Jessica Williams | Origin Records (2008) By Dan McClenaghan, All About Jazz

If you slip into Jessica Williams' web site and ride the currents of her blog, you could get the feeling that the (proudly) sixty year-old jazz pianist is something of an eccentric. Which is a good thing - in this case, an eccentric being one who has walked away from the hype, b.s. and group think with her head held high, coming up with her own take on the world and this thing called life that we're trying to navigate with as much grace as possible. Her writings reveal a woman of exceptional grace and wide-ranging intelligence, and they also reveal a woman who just might get a wild hair idea and break out her tool kit - the screw drivers and the socket set - to take apart her piano and reassemble it in a fashion that is more to her liking. An eccentric.

Williams' Songs For A New Century, a solo piano outing, reveals an evolving artist. Williams thinks it may be her best work. A re-spin of her outstanding Live at Yoshi's, Volume One (MaxJazz, 2004) - a trio affair featuring bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis - spotlights an artist making beautiful sounds and taking beautiful risks within a mainstream framework, a piano player with the joyousness and flair of Erroll Garner, the swinging virtuosity of Oscar Peterson, the depth of emotion of Bill Evans, the sly pizazz of Fats Waller and the soul of John Coltrane.

Songs for a New Century is a step forward. The set of all Williams originals, and one Sonny Rollins tune - A Blessing in Disguise - opens with Empathy, an achingly beautiful ballad full of delicate, crystalline notes in a teardrop melody - a spiritually salubrious sound if there ever was one. Toshiko for pianist/big band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi, glows eastward sporting a Japanese aura, with Williams making koto sounds, via the tool kit lady's mechanical tweaking (?) of the piano strings. Dear Oscar, a nod to Oscar Peterson, swings easily on a bluesy late night roll, while Spoken Softly sounds like a gloriously implacable truth revealed.

Amazingly, Williams recorded this life-affirming set while wrapped in the life-draining, leaden embrace of hypothyroidism, when she had energy for her art and little else.

She is evolving; but multiple spins of this gorgeous music say that Williams must be very close to the absolute pinnacle of artistic growth on the enthralling Song for a New Century. With her diagnosis and subsequent management of her disease, who knows how far she can take her musical endeavors.

Track listing: Empathy; Toshiko; Fantasia; Song for a Baby; Blessing in Disguise; Lament; Dear Oscar; Spoken Softly; If Only

Personnel: Jessica Williams: piano. Style: Modern Jazz/Free Improvisation | Published: April 17, 2008


***** from John Henry, AUDIOPHILE

This latest Jessica Williams CD is described as being recorded “direct to disc” which seems to be a similar technique to that employed on some Reference Records piano CDs - eliminating either the analog or digital tape step in the process. This is a quite different album from any of the many which one of the leading female keyboard jazz performs of today has released.

All nine tracks are original by Williams, and they cover a wide range of emotions and styles. Her conservatory training is in evidence on Fantasia (she has been compared to Bill Evans and even Glenn Gould). On Toshiko - dedicated to bandleader-composer Toshiko Akiyoshi - she uses some prepared-piano tricks to get the sounds of Japanese folk instruments such as the koto and shamisen. Other tunes are tributes to the memory of Oscar Peterson and John Coltrane. The piano sound is very close up, very clean and precise, yet richly colored.  Working without the usual rhythm section is not easy for any pianist, but Williams appears to sail thru the challenges with flying colors.

TrackList: Empathy, Toshiko, Fantasia, Song for a Baby, Blessing in Disguise, Lament, Dear Oscar, Spoken Softly, If Only

Published on April 10, 2008


***** from Earshot Jazz - Chris Robinson

Jessica Williams new album, Songs for a New Century, is one of the few solo piano CDs that I enjoy and that holds my attention from start to finish. While I’m not sure why I don’t enjoy many solo piano records, even those from the masters, I do know why I enjoy Williams recent effort: each performance on this album is a mature statement in which nothing is wasted and where every note, phrase, and melody has meaning.

Through the course of eight originals and the rarely-heard Sonny Rollins composition Blessing in Disguise, Williams effectively uses a variety of pianistic approaches to create wide-ranging and individual music. The charming Fantasia is calming and relaxing, and it sounds as if it could be one of Robert Schumann's mid-19th-century parlor character pieces. Mentally and emotionally it takes me to the same place as many of Chopin’s Preludes. Toshiko not only has a strong and pretty melody, but Williams either prepared the piano, played inside it with some kind of pick, or both to craft an ethereal, exotic quality. At times it sounds like there is a small, quiet snare drum inside the piano. The juxtaposition of unaltered notes with both pitched and un-pitched altered notes creates thick textures, rhythmic and timbral complexity, and musical intrigue.

While the album is strong throughout, I found the most rewarding pieces to be “Toshiko,” “Fantasia,” “Song for a Baby,” and the album’s final track, “If Only,” which feature strong and singable melodies that can stand on their own.

Songs for a New Century is gorgeous, touching, swinging, and bluesy, and it is one of the best albums I’ve heard in 2008.