Jessica Williams is regally tall, with large hands and long fingers. She plays the piano with little discernable effort, a hat trick that belies all the intricate counterpoint, walking bass lines, chordal clusters and melodic spring boarding that appears. Rhythm is everywhere in her performances, as it should be in a solo tribute called “A Nod to Mary Lou (Williams) and (Thelonious) Monk.” The program, heard in Duke University’s Nelson Music Room, was part of the school’s six week, 18-event “Following Monk” series.
Williams (no kin to Mary Lou Williams) opened with “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” the Frank Loesser tune from “Guys and Dolls.” The performance began in a romantic, Bill Evans mood, passed through a zone of churchy, Monk-like harmony and stride rhythm and emerged in Erroll Garner territory, sunny right hand figures splashing over a steady four-four in the left hand. We were hooked.
With “(I Don’t Stand a) Ghost of a Chance,” which Williams said she learned from one of Monk’s albums, she delved deep into Monk’s sound; cranky, stop-and-go rhythms, dissonant chords, angular melodic intervals, and a cluster or two nailed with the elbow and forearm. Her “Monk’s Hat” came next, an original with an old-timey church sound. Later, she played a blues that showed Monk’s connection with the church again. The most powerful performance of the concert, it included a walking bass line or walking thirds in the left hand and climactic choruses of block chords in the right – plus passages where she reached inside the piano and plucked the strings. The rocking beat also conjured up images of Mary Lou Williams’ Kansas City days. It was the kind of performance that could have gone on for hours and never lost its rhythmic seduction.
An untitled original in a classical music vein saluted Mary Lou Williams, and then there was Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” which modulated into his “Ruby, My Dear.” To end the concert, Williams took a couple of requests from the audience.
Throughout the concert, Williams proved fearless and secure in her adventurousness and completely at ease with the audience, as if we were old friends listening to her explore new intervals and angles at home.