Sunday, 22 April 2007

Jessica Williams...

Don't worry, I'm not recommending this CD. The review is here more because it provides an example of how I approach music that I profoundly dislike. You can probably see the tensions inside me spilling over onto the page, mindful of my duty to the readership on the one hand, and desperate to be true to myself on the other.

I remain committed to seeing things from the point of view of the audience each product is aimed at - a CD can only be pronounced 'bad' if it fails on those terms. More consumer journalism than music criticism? I'd like to say that I always try to find a way to balance both, but I'd settle for the former if pressed.

My review may not have made it onto the pages of, and is probably one of the few that didn't, but reading my assessment of this music as 'cocktail lounge entertainment' in print was all the reward I needed!!!

All Alone

As Time Goes By; In A Sentimental Mood; Warm Valley; All Alone; They Say It’s Wonderful; Don’t Explain; Toshiko; The Sheikh; Bill’s Beauty; The Quilt; Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress Then Blue Silk; Too Young To Go Steady.

Jessica Williams (p)
Recorded August 2002.

Few people seem to have been recording as many solo piano records as Jessica Williams. For a pianist to step out without the security of a rhythm section to comfort and cajole is something that requires confidence. For the likes of Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor, going solo recognises the difficulty, even the futility, of other people entering into their unique and utterly overwhelming sound-worlds. Despite her style being far more introverted, a certain amount of this applies to Williams too. She remarks in the short notes accompanying the CD that she regards herself as a musician before a pianist, and that she plays solo to allow her music to flow unimpeded. The tunes turn out to be the real star of the disc, however, simply because there is so little interpretation from Williams to be found.

‘All Alone’ presents four of her better known originals alongside a careful selection of standards, and works by Ellington and Mingus. Only ‘Warm Valley’ breaches the six minute mark, the remainder being too short for any sustained exploration or development (given that she’s no Art Tatum). What Wiliams does extremely well is to play with an exquisite touch, a rich harmonic palette and a refined sense of taste that is un-jarring. It is in her much-reprised originals, ‘Toshiko’, ‘The Sheikh’ and ‘The Quilt’ that she comes closest to getting under the skin of the material, or achieve the unimpeded flow she seeks. Elsewhere, however, the manner of her playing is sadly closer to cocktail-lounge entertainment than a jazz club or concert hall experience - pleasant, but demanding no real attention from the listener.

Those unconvinced of her talents will find nothing here to change their minds. For others, perhaps already owning several of her previous solo outings, the sumptuous sound of Brooklyn’s Systems Two studio and the choice of material should justify ‘All Alone’ entering your collection as a worthy consolidation and summation of earlier efforts.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, April 2003)


hackensack said...

I read this review when it was first published, and I remember being impressed by your restraint! At that time I was making my living (such as it was) from selling jazz CD's. I was always amazed by the number of Jessica Williams recordings appearing on the new release lists; but even more surprising was the constant queue of people waiting to buy them. I regularly had to exercise the same kind of diplomacy which you used in your review, and I had to work hard at hiding my disdain for this astonishingly mediocre pianist!

I'm writing this on the weekend when one of the truly great jazz pianists has died. It's consoling to reflect that during recent years Andrew Hill began to receive the recognition he deserved; but it's a sad fact that I would always be selling 10 Jessica Williams albums for every 1 Andrew Hill. Most people will always opt for the easy rather than the complex; a safe listen rather than one which might be challenging. Hill's 'A Beautiful Day' was released the same year as 'All Alone', and although it's not fair to compare the two albums 'A Beautiful Day' was, and still is, full of surprises, energy and originality. 'All Alone' is simply one more addition to a catalogue of largely interchangeable blandness.

Ferdinand said...

So sorry to hear of the demise of Andrew Hill, and I heard it from you first. Talents like Hill are worth any number of Williamses, and the last 12 months are proving to be a time of tremendous loss in the world of jazz. Creative musicians R.I.P.?

Yes, but let's celebrate the like of Vijay Iyer while we can...