She channels Monk with spontaneity, creativity

Special to The Times

One of a jazz musician’s most daunting tasks is to perform an extended program of material by another artist. And when the other artist is Thelonious Monk, the challenge increases exponentially.

But Jessica Williams was fully up to the task Sunday afternoon in her opening set for the David L. Abell Jazz Salon at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Playing in utterly spontaneous fashion, she worked her way through what was essentially a 45- or 50-minute medley of Monk’s music.

Although she occasionally paused between pieces (drawing distracting smatterings of applause), Williams was clearly focused on making connections in suite-like fashion. As one selection concluded, she briefly stared intently at the piano, gently rocking back and forth in rhythm before launching into another piece.

The results were mesmerizing. “This is emotionally dangerous music,” said Williams. “The only way you can play it is to become an appendage of his [Monk’s] brain.” She meant it humorously, of course.


But the way she tapped into Monk pieces such as “ ‘Round Midnight” and “Ruby, My Dear” -- as well as the standards “I Should Care” and “Ghost of a Chance,” performed in Monk’s unique manner -- suggested a kind of musical channeling tracing directly back to the bop master.

This was no simulation, however, no effort to simply replicate the originals. Williams fully understands the key components of Monk’s performing style -- percussive touch, disjunct rhythms, sudden bursts of sound -- and is well versed in his characteristic inverted chordal clusters, dissonant harmonies and frequent use of whole-tone melodic fragments. But she filtered those elements through her own creativity -- allowing her imagination to blend fully in a fashion that was neither fully Monk nor Williams, but a combination of both.

The second part of the program was filled with her own compositions -- a touching waltz tribute to Rosa Parks, a harmonically roving jazz ballad dedicated to artist Elaine Arc, and the centerpiece of the set, “Love and Hate,” an atmospheric, quasi-classical piece.

Topping it off, “Blues for B.T.,” inspired by Billy Taylor, finally gave Williams an opportunity to display the fundamentals of her own, hard-swinging, bop-drenched improvisational style.

It was a fitting climax to an entrancing afternoon of music by one of jazz’s versatile, and too little known, pianists.