Jessica Williams’s Songs for a New Century


You grow up in Baltimore, study classical piano at the Peabody Institute, and wind up gigging with Philly Joe Jones in his namesake town while you’re still in your twenties. In ’77, you split for the West Coast, hold down the house seat at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, back Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Tony Williams, and Charlie Haden. By the late ’90s, you’ve cut a couple dozen discs under your own name, been compared to everyone from Tatum to Tyner to Tristano to Monk, done the requisite Maybeck recital, and garnered plaudits from keyboard peers like Cedar Walton and Dave Brubeck, the latter calling you “one of the greatest jazz pianists I’ve ever heard.” Hell, you’ve even scored a Guggenheim fellowship. And still, someone mentions your name in New York and the response is: “Jessica who?”

I’d like to say this new solo disc is the one that’ll win Williams the East Coast recognition she merits. Unfortunately, Songs for a New Century is a low-key-to-a-fault affair, a somewhat soporific set of mostly pensive, impressionistic originals that display little of the fire, wit, or jaw-dropping technique for which Williams, 60, is lauded. Frankly, it all sounds quite a bit like the old century—specifically, like Bill Evans (another fan, and for whom Williams opened) circa 1961. Often lovely, the record nonetheless bears few surprises. Seek out 2002’s splendid This Side Up for a better introduction to this overlooked artist, who remains based in the Northwest and is thus far out-side New York’s provincial jazz purview.