Wednesday, January 20, 2010
An Appreciation of Jessica Williams
Everyone grew up with a unique soundtrack. These are the songs, the music that sustained our adolescent years, the songs that saw us through our high school sufferings and our frazzled romances. This is the music that walked at our sides as we met and married our spouses. And, perhaps, the music that dirged when the marriage ended.
None of us forgets the sound track of our youth, with its slow-dance makeout songs and funky booty-bouncers. It remains the sound track of our lives. There may be additions, new music always comes forth, but the basic rhythm carries our days and soothes our nights. We will always love the music we loved when we were young.
Our world is a motley of generations, and each generation has its youthful soundtrack. My father is still imprinted with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. They evoke his time in history. Armies were storming the beaches of Normandy, hopes and heartaches were thrown into the fires of war. Spirits were kept buoyant in the face of dread. The music was lively, sentimental and sophisticated. Only real pros could play it, virtuosi of reeds, brass and rhythm. It was vital and inventive and it isn’t going anywhere. New generations simply rediscover it.
We know our sound track,whatever it is: Metallica, Paul Anka, Tupac, The Carpenters, Michael Jackson, The Eagles, Little Richard….it’s ours and ours alone.
It is permanently tattooed into our nervous systems.
The soundtrack of my youth was a little strange. In 1961 there weren’t many kids of fourteen listening to John Coltrane . How many of my peers had a closet full of albums by Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Roland Kirk? How many owned a copy of Charles Mingus’masterwork, “The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady”?
I loved jazz so passionately that there’s no adult counterpart that I can identify. I love my wife that much. It’s no innocent passion, it’s tempered with the woes of life. It’s deep and real but it isn’t the insatiable breathless devotion I knew as a teenager. I was a kid who had musical crushes. My first Art Blakey album tipped me over!
Jazz was everything for me, at fifteen, sixteen. It was the Path of Paths.
I wanted to be a jazz musician, and my ear tuned to this musical elevation. When Ornette Coleman came along in 1965, I was graduating high school, and I didn’t hesitate, I jumped. I left home, ran off to New York with a dream of joining The Ornette Coleman Quartet. I met the man. He was wonderfully generous but I was too young and not good enough to be a member of his band. I didn’t get it, socially, didn’t understand the drugs, racism, the harshness of the jazz life. It was all a romance for me. If I failed, I could go home and attend college. There was no such safety net for Ornette Coleman. He had to grab the world and make it listen!
The sound track of my youth: Coltrane, Miles, Mingus, Jackie Mclean, Tony Williams, Ornette Coleman. I didn’t have many friends. People thought I was crazy.
Along the way I developed a passion for piano music. I loved pianists. I seized upon Bill Evans with a grip like epoxy and listened for hours and hours. The way McCoy Tyner soloed with Coltrane gave me goose bumps. I’d stop the record, go back to the start of the piano solo and play it again and again.
I liked the peaceful manner of Bill Evans. He was never harsh, he played like a very gentle man, and so it was, I understand. I was gravitating towards a more reflective kind of music.
I love pianists. I love the great classical pianists. Glenn Gould, Vladmir Ashkenazy. Chopin transported me. I loved the interpretations of a relative unknown , Abbey Simon. I hated the the narcisissm of the so-called “greats”. How could different pianists play the same music, the same Chopin, with such disparate results? Some sounded musical and tender, towering and strong, while others merely sounded brittle.
About ten years ago, a friend gave me a Jessica Williams album. I loved the music. The CD was “Live at Maybeck”, an outdoor concert in which Jessica played solo. I loved the playing. I wanted more. I played the Maybeck CD again, and yet again.
What happens when an artist’s work enters a person’s life? What intimate process evolves when a relationship is established between artist and participant? There are a few artists whose visions have become like an alternate home for my soul. I’ve listened to John Coltrane for fifty years. I bought my first Coltrane album, “Blue Train” in 1960.
It began an awesome collection of Coltrane recordings. I wore out copies, I gave away copies. I often entreated some shrinking acquaintance who was dodging the copy of “Meditations” I was thrusting into his reluctant hands. “Here, listen to this, you HAVE to listen to this! It will change your life! Just take it!” He wanted to go back to his apartment, smoke dope and listen to Moody Blues and Led Zeppelin. By my logic, if I loved Coltrane, everyone should love Coltrane. If I was at a party, I’d load a recording like “Ascension” onto the turntable and people would run from the room as if a disease had arrived. Now and then someone would hit me, take the album from the turntable and break it or sail it out the window.
I carried Trane’s records with me across the country. I took them everywhere an aspiring musician could go. They lived with me in Cleveland, Detroit, New York, St. Louis and San Francisco. I listened to them stoned, straight, on acid. I absorbed them, I ate them whole, chewing so much vinyl that my lips turned purple..
Later, the same thing happened as I began to acquire Jessica Williams’ CDs. Jessica has a CD called “Tribute to John Coltrane”. I ordered it from Jessica’s direct-sales website. She even signed it! That CD, with my favorite Coltrane song, “Lonnie’s Lament”, became my everyday soundtrack.
As I began listening to Jessica Williams I began to perceive the details of her genius. Her technique is so abundant, I can only laugh. Such speed, such “touch”, such command of the entire keyboard’s sonority. There aren’t many pianists to compete with the absurd affluence of her chops. Some performers with technical gifts get stuck there, with the technique. They remain performers. They never take the next step towards artistry.
Jessica Williams’ technique is so huge that she’s surpassed that mysterious threshold where a musician becomes able to tell jokes. Wit requires a special ability in music. A witty musician needs virtuosity. How can a player tell the joke without the timing? How can there be humor without first acquiring a universe of knowledge with which to assemble the fable, the short quip, the pun, the turning upside down backwards and forwards of a well known piece of music so that it sweetly mocks itself? It takes years of practice to afford the risk of timing, the risk of flirting with a line or a pun in an odd place, framed in an odd way. It requires confidence and audacity to take a chance, to make a wide leap of musical faith. Only the masters have that much audacity. Only the masters are geniuses of timing. Jessica’s aptitude for surprise keeps us listening intently. Some of her witticisms pass in a second. Whoops, quote from “Grand Canyon Suite” in the midst of a tender ballad. Gone! Two bars. She might play a gorgeous arpeggio from a great old standard. At the end, as the ringing tones of the florid scales vanish into the air, she throws off a little two tone discord, dink! and it fits perfectly, makes a comment on the preceding music as if to say, “so there you are! Ha!”
It’s impossible to write about Jessica Williams without a discussion of Thelonious Monk. Jessica has made no secret of Monk’s influence on her work. It’s an odd juxtaposition. Jessica said during an interview with Terry Gross that the first time she heard Monk, she thought he was wearing boxing gloves.
Monk plays a hammer-handed style that owes little to classical training. It’s a fusion of conventional and purely invented techniques, devised by Thelonious Monk to serve his peculiar childlike madness.
My guess is that a major link between Monk and Jessica Williams is humor. Jessica, with her fleet fingers full of finesse, has so much technique that the piano becomes a complex toy, an object with which to play, as a child plays, building worlds in the imagination.
Monk’s music often sounds like something played by a brilliant and very strong six year old. The melodies are deceptively simple, yet full of tricks and quirks. Some Monk tunes evoke the sensation of almost stumbling over a crack in the sidewalk, then recovering without falling on your face. Monk is devious. He writes to test other musicians, to see if they can cut it, to separate the gold from the lead. The compositions are not so much difficult as subtle. It’s easy to hum a Monk tune, easy to let one of his lines slip into the rhythm of driving or shopping. His songs are like nursery rhymes made up by a man who is both autistic savant and cosmic seer. Monk seemed to live in several worlds simultaneously. The only location where all the worlds converged was in the piano . Monk’s music was so unconventional as to require use of elbows, forearms, crazed crushes of fingers. His right leg flopped like a hooked sturgeon when he played. He was famous for getting up and dancing a little jig while his sidemen solved the labyrinth of his chords. Were it not for the staggering originality of Monk’s ideas, he would never have been recognized, never acquired fans. He was barely functional and spent time in mental wards. Without his wife Nellie’s patient devotion, no one would know the name Thelonious Monk. It would be “What-lonius who?”
Monk could be hilarious with a single chord. Just one! Using ten fingers. There might be fourteen or fifteen notes played by those ten fingers but all of them belonged in the comic smash of tones that was Monk’s sly quip. How could a musician as funny as Jessica Williams not fall in love with Monk? Both are clowns of the piano. They approach the piano from opposite ends, but Monk has given Jessica an entire vocabulary from which she can absorb crazy funny quirky and exotic musical remarks. No one can imitate Monk. An astute pianist can be liberated by Monk. He invented a uniquely sonorous dissonance. Monk used his imagination to turn wrong notes into right notes. There were no wrong notes. There were just Monk-Notes and Not-Monk-Notes. Musicians who played too many Not-Monk-Notes soon found themselves playing elsewhere.
Jessica’s palette is larger than the conventional palette of modern jazz. Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, are modern jazz pianists. I know Jessica will be called a “postmodern” pianist but I refuse to plop a decal on her. Trained in classical music at the Peabody Institute, she encompasses the whole of piano literature and borrows from sources in every corner, from John Cage to the pulse of flamenco and the staccato plonks of the Balkan santur.
The length of Jessica’s lines is unusual. They can be so long they seem endless yet always resolve perfectly, after wandering and stretching through a DNA-like weave of notes where each fragment of the entire line is a single chromosome and miraculously the chromosomes fit together by the time Jessica has reached the conclusion of her idea and is moving to the next. Then, another line of equally operatic length may follow. Jessica pulls this length off without ever getting boring.
Her lines are like action films where we wait with our hearts beating quickly until the good guy wins or the odds are overcome. The conclusions are celebrations. The effect is visceral: UH! Rock me in my seat, let my arms and legs twitch with happiness when the mystery is solved!
This isn’t music I listen to. This is music I ingest. This is music that mingles with my bloodstream.
“When I'm playing, I think of NOTHING. The Buddha is EMPTY. I seek TRUTH through emptiness, through honesty without a veil or blinders.”. Jessica Williams
I have twelve CDs by Jessica Williams. That’s not a large number. I’d love to have all of them. I listen to them constantly. I listen to them as I write and work at home. I listen to them in the car. I hardly listen to anything else. Jessica’s music is so rich it’s like a rain forest of exquisite musical plants. It brings me joy, stimulation, awe, relaxation, information and escape to a world ruled by The Queen Of Beauty. What is she doing, I wonder, as she reaches to the very upper keys on the piano and spends sixty four bars tinkling almost beyond the range of human hearing.? The sounds are like bells coming from the clouds of a supernatural realm. Meanwhile, her other hand is playing some ironic or unlikely counterpoint that is so dextrous as to be stunning, impossible, yet there it is, pure musical fact. I can imagine a Hindu deity-poster of Jessica possessing eight arms. In each hand is a piano. A keyboard elephant’s trunk of ivory and ebony tapers gracefully from where her nose should be.
Jessica is both lofty and funky. She is elegant and rooty, the rasp and twist of blues is never far from the surface.
When John Coltrane said, with such stunning simplicity, “I want to be a force for good,” he was expressing the deepest will of anyone attuned to spiritual purpose. I seldom use the word “God”. It’s too vague. “God” becomes an excuse, a crutch, a fantasy, a fleeing from pain, a selfishness.
“Being a force for good” is a more accurate expression of putting my life in the service of a greater power than myself. If I want to be a force for good, if I hold that desire at the center of my heart, I have made a commitment to walking a path of ethics, generosity and compassion. Integrity demands that I make an effort to repair the damage of the lies that I have told, or believed.
There are people who make themselves into living treasures by embracing this desire. Jessica Williams is one of those people. It is our good fortune that she is an individual who devoted countless hours to the practice and study of music. This has enabled her to be the treasure, play the treasure, inspire the treasure in all of us.
Jessica is a force for good.
I have let her become one of the cornerstones of the sound track of my life.