The Baltimore native first appeared on the Philadelphia club scene while still in her teens, already accomplished enough to earn a spot in Philly Joe Jones group. By the late seventies she was in San Francisco, holding down the role of house pianist at the fabled Keystone Korner, sharing the stage with legends like Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Art Blakey and Tony Williams and holding her own all the way. In order to escape the "unhealthy lifestyle" that surrounded the jazz club scene, though, she carved out her own direction, securing a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the NEA that allowed her to compose and record her music on her own terms and primarily on her own label. That departure from the conventional jazz circuit accorded her the status of "player's player," but doubtless cost her something in the realm of public acclaim.
That acclaim is long overdue, and the music on this release proves that it is well deserved. Eight of the ten tracks are Williams originals, including tributes to Milt Hinton, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon, all of whom she counts as major influences. While she doesn't offer a similar dedication to Thelonious Monk on the disc, her style and creative vision give unspoken but unabashed tribute to him as well.
I'm particularly grateful for her inclusion of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Theme For The Eulipians." The Kirk book is too often overlooked, in no small part because it presents a formidable challenge for most players, but Williams is equal to the challenge and hearing this track for the first time was one of the genuine highlights of my listening year so far.
Accompanied by Ray Drummond on bass and drummer Victor Lewis, Jessica Williams has provided another valuable addition to the vocabulary of jazz with This Side Up.