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Reviewed by Don Williamson, 52nd Street Jazz
Rating: ***** (5 stars)
Jessica Williams (piano), Scott Hall (tenor saxophone), Dave Captein (bass), Mel Brown (drums)
Why isn't Jessica Williams recording on a major label?
That's a rhetorical question, I know. Since Williams lives in the Pacific Northwest, it does make some sense for her to record for Calgary-based Jazz Focus Records (which isn't exactly in the Pacific Southwest of Canada but is closer to Seattle than, say, New York City or Chicago).
This is my point: Several jazz pianists with major-label contracts exhibit a drier approach, more introversion, less unabashed joy in performing, less technical fluidity and less spirituality than Jessica Williams.
As that noted philosopher, Jimmy Carter, would put it, "Life isn't fair."
But it's fair to say that Jessica Williams, operating for the most part on the periphery of publicized attention within the jazz scene, remains a pearl to be discovered and savored, if only enthusiasts of innovative and yet swinging jazz piano would make the dive.
BLUE FIRE lets them do that.
While Williams expounds upon the current state of jazz, and other tenuously connected topics, in the liner notes, she's no artistic pedant like Brad Mehldau with his numerous liner-noted philosophic and literary allusions that put the reader to sleep.
Instead, she basically describes her musical method, that being the establishment of a strong emotional bond between the musician and the listener.
She knows whereof she writes.
While the title tune insists upon a single chord for improvisation throughout, Williams is wise enough to realize the importance of rhythm over harmony in developing a spiritual connection, similar to Coltrane's method.
Experimenting with the sonic possibilities of the piano, Williams strums the dampened strings behind saxophonist Hall and makes the piano as percussive as the bass and drums.
Several critics have credited Williams with a Monk influence, but it's obvious on BLUE FIRE that her influences are broader than that.
'Everything Happens To Me,' commencing with Hall's halting and teasing sense of development and continuing with a quirky Williams solo in the octave below middle C, breaks unexpectedly into an unmistakable Erroll Garner left-hand reference.
'The Vision' seems to derive from McCoy Tynerish depths of register and feeling, even though Williams slips in gentler modulations and more of a lilt than you would hear from Tyner.
Her block-chorded interpretation of her own tune, 'Somebody's Waltz,' sounds, for all the world Brubeckian.
And 'Elbow Room,' yes, evolves into a comical three-four version of 'Straight No Chaser,' discordant chords splashing here and there and slammed accents oddly coming from nowhere other than the intention to surprise.
These comparisons do an injustice to Williams' originality and strong connection with her audience. Captein and Brown intuitively know where Williams is going, and the colors and pulse they develop behind her and in solos make the listener sit up and listen and wonder why they don't record often as well?
On BLUE FIRE Jessica Williams proves once again that she is one of her generation's leading, but under-recognized, jazz pianists.
Don Williamson - 52nd Street Jazz
©2000 Don Williamson -All rights reserved. May not be reprinted or reproduced in any form without permission.