Jessica Williams

In a comment appended to my previous post, listing the music that had shuffled its way to the top of my iPod this month, Åge Hedley Petersen reminded me that I had written about this month’s number one artist, the American pianist Jessica Williams, in the 9th Resnick novel, Still Water.

Resnick is in London, on the trail of Jerzy Grabianski, burglar, art connoisseur, humanitarian and, in many respects, Resnick’s alter ego, and, finding himself with a free evening, makes his way to a jazz club called the Rhythmic in Islington, near Chapel Market, where Jessica Williams is the main attraction.

The street that Resnick walked along was thick with refuse from that day’s market, crates and boxes interlaced with bright blue paper, rotting oranges, grapes, onions oozing pus.

The Rhythmic was on the left-hand side, behind where the market proper ended. The main room was large, larger than Resnick had anticipated, the half immediately facing him set out with tables for dining. He had time to buy a bottle of Budvar and find leaning space along the side wall before the lights dimmed and, after a brief announcement, Jessica Williams came on stage.

Tall, red-haired, and wearing a long, loose flowing dress, she sat at the piano and for a moment fidgeted with the height of the stool. Even before she began playing, fingers hesitating above the keys, Resnick had noticed the size of her hands. Then, without introduction, she launched into “I Should Care”. Almost deferentially at first, brushing the tune around the edges, feeling her way freshly into a melody she must have played – and Resnick heard – a hundred times. Ten minutes later, when she had exhausted every variation, left hand rocking through a stride pattern that would have made James P. Johnson or Fats Waller beam with pleasure, she finished to a roar of disbelieving applause.

And paused, eyes closed, waiting for the silence to resume.This time it was a slow blues, building from the most basic of patterns to a dazzling display of counterpoint that recalled for Resnick an old album he had bought by Lennie Tristano – “C Minor Complex”. “G Minor Complex” – bop meets Bach. After that, she clearly felt relaxed enough to talk, and played her way through two sets of standards and originals that held the crowd’s – and Resnick’s – attention fast.

By the time he walked back out into the London night some hours later, he knew he had been in the presence of something – someone – special.

I should care, the words came to him, I should let it upset me. When he dialled Hannah’s number from the call-box on the corner, the answerphone had been switched off and it rang and rang and tang until he broke the connection with his thumb.

“Call-box on the corner” – that dates it. And the funny thing is, though the Jessica Williams performance I’m describing is one Katy which I was actually present, it was at the more austere Purcell Rooms at the South Bank Centre; the person I saw at the short-lived Rhythmic was Milt Jackson, a wonderful evening of superb musicianship which led to me featuring Jackson in the opening chapter of the novel.

still water 2


Author: John Harvey


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