Jessica Williams in April, 2000


Listening to pianist Jessica Williams is a like riding a musical roller-coaster.

We plunge into cascades of fluid ornamentation, soar above them on majestic leaps, then fall, breathe and dash headlong again into an agile stream shaped sleekly into a welcoming groove. From quiet to roaring, double time to achingly slow rubato, Williams always brings drama and grace to jazz standards and her own memorable compositions.

She will perform work from her recent albums with drummer Mel Brown and bassist Dave Captein at the Old Church tonight in a tribute to the late bassist Leroy Vinnegar, one of her major collaborators whose last album, Boss of the Walking Bass, features both Williams and Brown.

Williams, 53, is a California resident who lived in Portland for 18 months in the early 1990s. With nearly 30 albums to her credit and the praise of legends such as McCoy Tyner and Dave Brubeck, she is one of the country’s top jazz pianists. A restless spirit, Williams is always making changes in her music and in her views of the industry.

Moving forward on both fronts, she recently announced a new record company her own Red and Blue label with two titles, It’s Jessica’s Time and Some Ballads, Some Blues and a new approach to her music.

Call her mercurial. No matter the twists and turns Williams takes, though, her essential core hasn’t changed. Her music remains beautiful, intelligent and rooted in the blues; and beneath her shifting views of the jazz business is a commitment to freedom, justice and the path with heart. One of the foremost interpreters of Thelonious Monk, she learned how to follow that path from him:

The lesson is, she writes in the liner notes to In the Key of Monk (’99), sing your song, your song and no one else’s, no matter how much resistance you encounter Follow your path Believe, with all your will, in the song you’ve heard in your heart Sing that song loud and long enough, and it will be heard. And it will change the world.


Williams talked about the new turns in her path in a telephone conversation last week shortly after her first public appearance in six months.


New label New Freedom

I’m selling on the internet now. I’ve got a loyal buying public and they come to my web site So at some point I’ll be coming out and performing exactly what I want because I can’t be told what to do by record company producers On a lot of the creative music I’ve been doing by myself for the past 10 years, I’ve used electronics, synthesizers, computers. I hadn’t been allowed to put that out. Now I can do it.


Out of the Jazz Business

Essentially, I’m out of the jazz field. It has been really hard even for the successful artist to make a living at this music . My problem with this music is, where do we all fit, those of us who don’t want to play in nightclubs the rest of our lives and lead that lifestyle and die 20 years before our time? I’m seeing guys die right and left. I’ve seen enough. I don’t want to continue to participate in this.


Less Performance

I’m not going to stop playing music, but it’s going to look very different. There’s not going to be much performance involved . It’ll be more like painting or writing and less like performance art. I’ve always felt that my art was about perfection, and working something until I got it right You want to give people things of beauty.


Listening to the Silence

I needed to stop for six months and listen to the silence. Native Americans referred to it as a vision quest. I’ve always played just what I’ve heard. I need to hear what it is I wasn’t hearing before, and I wasn’t going to hear it if I kept on playing the same stuff. Eventually, I know the music will start again.

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