Ahmad Jamal at The Blue Note

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Ahmad Jamal
The Blue Note
New York, New York
May 11, 2008

Ahmad Jamal both caressed and shook the Blue Note during the second set of his appearance on this Sunday in May. Famous for his use of dynamics (soft- loud contrasts, sudden stops and starts, deferring to his section mates for extended stretches), the piano master gave a bravura display of the state of his art, as it has developed over the decades since his 1951 Epic album The Piano Scene was released. That recording, together with the ensuing The Ahmad Jamal Trio (Epic, 1956), strongly influenced the music of Miles Davis during his famous first quintet period of the mid-1950s as well as in the modal revolution of Milestones (Columbia, 1958). As for Jamal's music, it has never stopped developing.

The pianist's music now can perhaps be described as a type of "classical jazz." Elements of the early Jamal style crop up and are separated by dramatic blocks of music that incorporate the sounds of Debussy, de Falla, and other classical composers. Jamal himself says that listeners are just as likely to hear in his music some Mozart as, say, Errol Garner. Given also that in the 1970s Jamal recorded many innovative fusion albums that have their devotees, a listener surveying his career can easily see the developmental arc of a true artist. The variety and influence of his work (he is even much sampled by leading hip hop artists) was recognized by the French government when it made him a recipient of the prestigious French Order of the Arts and Letters in 2007. Soon to be seventy-eight, he is a bundle of science and energy.

During an unexpected, fortunate meeting with the piano giant afterwards, I used the opportunity to ask him where his "open" sound came from. His reply was immediate (and not a surprise): Errol Garner. The sound was already evident on his first album, for example on Jimmy Van Heusen's "It Could Happen To You." With the release of his famous and popular 1958 album At The Pershing: But Not For Me, his sound was soon everywhere. His previous album, The Ahmad Jamal Trio from 1956, contained a musically adventurous tune called "Pavane" with effectively the same music in its main section as Miles Davis' "Milestones," from two years later!

When I asked him about his influence on Miles Davis (acknowledged by Davis in his autobiography), Jamal responded, "We were a mutual admiration society." When I reminded him that his seminal work occurred before Davis' similar developments, he conceded: "It was me!" (Credit where credit's due?!) And why were his 1950s recordings in guitar keys (G and D for example) instead of traditionally pianistic keys like Eb and Bb (keys that Art Tatum commonly used, for example)? "We're always learning new keys," he said, implying (to this reviewer) that the more open keys enabled him to insert more readily his innovative new sound and dynamics into the tunes. (A further example of his developmental arc?)

At the performance, those in attendance had to sense they were in the presence of a musical giant. Jamal was not the only giant present, however, as after the opening track "Aftermath" he soon introduced legendary drummer Idris Muhammed as "one of the great ones." He also complimented highly his long-time bassist James Cammick, an attention-holding performer, offering very fast and rhythmic solo passages in addition to flawless support. Completing the band was the able and busy percussionist Manolo Badrena.

During the set Jamal frequently stood and turned at the keyboard to give instructions to the percussion, or gestured toward the musicians while conducting a section or rhythm change. A well-known feature of Jamal's performances, the conducting, far from amounting to choreographic gimmickry, is necessary because of the swift, extreme dynamic changes during his pieces.

There were elements of Bud Powell, bebop harmonies and Charlie Parker as well as a quote from Rodgers and Hart's "There's A Small Hotel" in the group's second number, "You Can See," which Jamal credited to pianist Monty Alexander. Jimmy Heath's "Mellowdrama," and a very percussive tune followed, before the arrival of the "Topsy Turvy." The quotes continued: first a big introduction reminiscent of Errol Garner, including a brief interpolation of R&H's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," then another allusion, this time to Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top" (included on At the Pershing, this time not preceding but following by two years Miles Davis' influential recording of the tune on his 1956 Prestige dateSteamin'. When asked about his favorite quotes, he answered somewhat evasively: "We all like to do that." The practice, of course, goes back to pianists like Fats Waller and was employed on a broad scale by Charlie Parker.

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