Jessica Williams/Bruce Barth

All Alone (MAXJAZZ)
Live at the Village Vanguard (MAXJAZZ)

Elegant though not pretentious, inviting but not desperate, this beguiling pair of discs from Jessica Williams and Bruce Barth make for fine listening. While offering multiple-track releases of mostly piano-driven fare might constitute a potentially disastrous goal from a financial point of view, both Barth and Williams carry their respective recordings in high style.

Williams finesses the ivories in a way that makes you forget that the piano is but a single instrument. On All Alone, she moves fluidly through an hour's worth of varied compositions. Beginning with a thoughtful version of Herman Hupfield's "As Time Goes By," she moves on to work by Edward Kennedy Ellington, Irving Berlin and Charles Mingus, as well as a few of her own piece. Her "Toshiko" possesses a sedate and elemental energy reminiscent of gently falling snow, while "The Sheikh" recalls the melody of the Miles Davis classic "So What." Williams also offers up "Bill's Beauty" and "The Quilt," with these four original tracks folded together to more or less fill out the middle section of the disc. The collection closes with a graceful reading of Mingus's "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress Then Blue Silk" followed by "Too Young to Go Steady," originally by Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh. A few lines of Williams's verse, printed on the CD jacket, might best explain her style: "Letting the music play itself is the goal/I'm only as much of a pianist as I need to be/To let it play unimpeded."

Leading a trio composed of himself, drummer Al Foster and bassist Ugonna Okegwo, Bruce Barth brings us in for an evening of nicely polished jazz at the Village Vanguard. He gives a rock-solid performance throughout, which is no surprise considering his role as an accompanist for singers Carla Cook, Laverne Butler, Dominique Eade and Rene Martin. A seasoned player, Barth has been compared to Tommy Flanagan, Ella Fitzgerald's longtime accompanist.

Live From the Village Vanguard is a mixture of original material and covers, including several Thelonious Monk tunes and a salting of classics. The trio boogies through Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night" and smartly kicks Monk's "San Francisco Holiday." On his own "Days of June," Barth and company demonstrate what makes them worthy of a live Vanguard release, flowing organically through the composition with workmanlike proficiency and an absence of frills. The disc closes with a mellow solo rendition of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "When the Sun Goes Down," followed by the hearty and well-deserved applause of the crowd.

Listeners might be moved to join in.

 
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