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Jessica Williams: Joy

The legendary force and filigree of Jessica Williams’ keyboard technique, admired of other pianists, are cast in different contexts on these albums, revealing many of the legend’s strengths and a few weaknesses.

Joy is conceived as a tribute suite to the title subject, composed by Williams and recorded in quartet/quintet ensembles in the Northwest. The settings, which range from happy skips to reflective blues to Coltrane-and-Sanders-like paeans, allow for both playful and devotional group activity.

There are times, though, where Williams’ love of concept and whirlwind virtuosity take precedence over emotional substance and artistic articulation. This occurs on the slinky “Infinite Circle” segment and on “The Mystery Unfolds,” for which a softening of attack would have been a blessing.

There’s a better fit on the solo album Gratitude, where Williams originals keep company with refreshing takes on standards and tribute allusions to two of the pianist’s guiding lights. Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” receives worthy coverage, and one of the standards, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” actually functions as a reference to Monk’s own treatment of the Gershwin tune (on “It’s Monk’s Time”). Williams is one of the only players who can blatantly echo elements of the eccentric master, such as his bravado stride and keyboard mashes, and yet stay true to her idiomatic, occasionally polytonal self.

“Justice,” although attributed to Monk in the liner’s song list, is actually a delightful and surprisingly appropriate marriage of Klages and Greer’s “Just You, Just Me” with Monk’s “Evidence.” The mercurial Williams humor is in ample evidence on this album and particularly on that tune, with crazy quotes from “Camptown Races” and “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.”

Williams’ characteristic right hand dust devils swirl above a prowling left hand in a suave rendering of John Coltrane’s “Mr. Syms,” while Williams’ own modal ballad, “Last Trane,” is a prettily painted portrait of that composer.

Originally Published