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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.



In titling her new collection, Jessica Williams might be referencing Baroque composer François Couperin and his seminal L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin. But she is definitely advancing Couperin's artful use of the piano's idiomatic elements, and we're lucky that a properly appreciative Seattle audience witnessed her pioneering technique.

On "Triple Door Blues" and several times afterwards, Williams goes beyond reaching under the lid and strumming the strings. Touching the strings while playing the keys, she can make the piano sound like a harpsichord or a plucked guitar—or, in this instance, a plucked bass. Thankfully the audience is so awestruck that, after a scattering of astonished whoops, they withhold applause until after the demo, upholding jazz audience tradition and underscoring the sensation that we've just heard a different instrument soloing.

Williams' fascinating liner notes are more about pianos, their history, their tuning and her Glenn Gould epiphany than about these performances. Yet musical quality is never subverted by technical gimmickry. Famously gifted with a type of synesthesia that allows her to see different colors when she plays different notes, Williams may actually be trimming her considerable chops so she can share her expanded palette of sound colors.

It's also less about Monk at this advanced stage of Williams' career, with a more chameleonic choice of stylings for her original tunes. After nodding toward Erroll Garmer on "Triple Door," the Spanish flair of "Esperanza" is very much in a Chick Corea vein, and the chromatic balladry of "Diane" evokes Bill Evans. The two covers are equally revelatory.

Williams gracefully waltzes Erik Satie's "First Gymnopédie," and proves you can swing on it. Yet the pièce de résistance is Trane's "Lonnie's Lament," where she not only echoes the real McCoy but—with her expanded percussion arsenal—conjures up the entire Coltrane Quartet. Williams can do it all—artfully.

PERRY TANNENBAUM, JazzTimes, March 2010