by Piotr Michalowski
Jazz musicians from the West Coast are often not given the appreciation they deserve. There are vibrant musical scenes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and other Pacific Rim cities, but not enough players from these areas have the opportunity to be heard elsewhere. One musician who has worked hard to overcome the West Coast handicap is pianist Jessica Williams, who has been living in San Francisco for four decades.
Williams was born in Baltimore, the home of the Peabody Conservatory. Her musical talents were recognized early, and she studied the classics at the conservatory as a teenager. But, as she tells it, she never really took to Rachmaninoff, and once she heard jazz, she was instantly converted, turning her back on the conservatory tradition. Fortunately, her piano teacher was also a jazz lover, and he encouraged her conversion. She was soon playing professionally, and even spent time in the quartet of Philly Joe Jones, one of the greatest drummers in modern jazz.
In 1976 she made the first recording under her own name and the next year moved to San Francisco, where she accompanied visiting soloists and played her own gigs at two internationally known local jazz clubs, the Blackhawk and the Keystone Corner. She was the house pianist at the latter venue for a while and even released a recording of a trio performance from the former.
In the 1990s she began to work and record more in a trio setting and as a soloist, and her reputation began to spread. She developed a small but dedicated following but has never achieved commercial jazz success, in the United States at least. Instead, she has created a career on her own terms; she plays only in selected places that she finds sympathetic, avoiding noisy clubs and the carnival atmosphere of most jazz festivals.
There is a remarkable consistency to Williams's playing. She can best be characterized as a modern traditionalist, but unlike so many pianists
of this type, she has an immediately recognizable style. She lets you know that she has listened to Art Tatum, Dave Brubeck, or Oscar Peterson, but she has also absorbed techniques of stride and boogie-woogie players, developing a strong, pulsating left hand technique. She is a rhythmic player who loves to swing and avoids the cocktail-piano stylings that often mar the work of solo jazz players. Perhaps the most characteristic element in her playing is her take on the idiosyncratic style of Thelonious Monk. Most pianists who cite Monk are forced to imitate him, which is hardly jazz flattery, but Williams is one of the rare players who have internalized his ideas and transformed them in a personal manner. Her repertoire consists of standards, jazz classics, and her own compositions, including "Monk's Hat," a delicious homage to her idol.
Jessica Williams is at the Kerrytown Concert House on Friday, May 19.
[Review published May 2006]