I feel that Jessica Williams is not just the top female jazz pianist around today but one of the top jazz pianists period. She’s recorded a steady stream of fine albums over the years (we just reviewed two of them here, as a matter of fact). But this one is a bit different on several counts. First, it is a tribute to one of the major spokesmen for jazz, plus being an outstanding pianist and jazz educator. I’m speaking of Dr. Billy Taylor – the latest of whose achievements over the past half century has been the hosting of the first jazz series on national TV in decades – The PBS Jazz Legends.
Williams has been involved in several jazz events with Taylor and he has supported her career. So she decided to do an entire album of her own compositions – all dedicated to Taylor. Next, she decided to do it on solo unaccompanied piano – a courageous act right there. Nearly all eight selections are lyrical and rather laid back, without what she calls in her booklet notes the “flying fingers” style. But that doesn’t stop them from swinging mightily – as in the down home funk of her The Soul Doctor. The two lengthy Spontaneous Compositions are fascinating improvisations; I preferred them to most of Keith Jarrett’s on-the-spot improvisations. The last thing that makes this CD somewhat different is the recording approach. Williams produced the album herself, and since Billy Taylor has done so much to expand jazz from the jazz club to the concert hall – similar to the longtime efforts of fellow pianist John Lewis – she wanted to capture a more “classical” sound. To do so she placed the mikes some distance back as for recording classical piano, rather than sticking them close into the strings as for most jazz recordings. The result is a rich and full sound without the emphasis on the percussive aspect. She also uses a Knabe concert grand rather than the usual Steinway, resulting in a more pleasant high treble to my ears.
Tracks: Finally Free, Billy’s Theme No. 1, The Soul Doctor, Blues for BT, Taylor’s Triumph, Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation No. 1, Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation No. 2, Billy’s Theme No. 2.
— John Henry