Jessica Williams Trio, Momentum

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Maybe it's because she's female, or works out of California instead of NYC, but Jessica Williams has for decades been arguably the most underrated pianist in jazz. Nearly all of her vast output is worth recommending, but Momentum is a good primer for its trio setting (Williams'most frequent and capable musical environment) and piquant range of styles. She honors the velvet-toned cocktail music of Rodgers & Hammerstein's “We Kiss in a Shadow,” but boosts its IQ with phrases of succinct erudition; then turns around and plunges into the staccato mischief of an obscure Thelonious Monk tune (“Shuffle Boil”), acknowledging her primary mentor with hat-tip wit and a diligent mining of his discography. “Nommo” is a twelve-minute tour de force, featuring a seemingly effortless series of tempo shifts and thematic pegs that justify its length.

Underrated jazz pianist is equally as adept with parlor tricks as she is with formal recitals.

Emotionally, Williams can be both poignant and playful (check out the opener, “Stonewall Blues”). She can dazzle with technique or conceptually, without forsaking entertainment for the lab or the library. The parallel independence of her two-handed dialogue on Cole Porter's “You Do Something To Me” is like a recital and a parlor trick wrapped together with a bow, and her deconstruction of the standard “Autumn Leaves” to close out the disc just keeps getting better with repeated listening. The rhythm section of bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Dick Berk can't quite match the luster of her current ensemble of Ray Drummond and Victor Lewis. But, as with Williams herself, you come away from Momentum wondering, “why aren't these people better known?”