It's surprising that Ahmad Jamal, clearly one of the benchmarks of jazz piano in the '50s, has been neglected by most jazz writers. Though he's clearly been a popular favorite, most of the positive commentary has focused on "Miles Davis really liked him. That's actually a bit of an understatement. One might even say Davis was obsessed with Jamal for a while. From the titles on this set, which collects 41 tracks (the first recordings from Jamal's trio recorded between 1951-56), Davis recorded Jamal's "New Rumba, "Ahmad's Blues, the neglected standards "I Don't Wanna Be Kissed and "Gal In Calico, and five other tunes.
But Jamal isn't great because he received Davis' imprimatur. It's his body of work that makes him great, especially a period of explosive creativity from 1968-72, during which he recorded a series of albums for Impulse! that have yet to see comprehensive reissue.
This recording features Jamal's drummer-less trio with Ray Crawford on guitar and either Eddie Calhoun or Israel Crosby on bass. The earliest sessions (from 1951-52) were done for Epic and the later sessions (from 1955) for Argo. As a bonus, this reissue also contains the first (1956) recordings of his standard piano trio with Crosby and drummer Walter Perkins.
All of the hallmarks of Jamal's style are already here, albeit in nascent form: his use of space and anticipation, his rich harmonic sense, his concepts of trio interplay. Crawford was a unique guitarist who could string together solos of melodic richness and also provide the group's rhythmic pulse through a unique style of percussive picking. Though the technique was occasionally overused, ultimately it didn't get in the way of the music.
This group's repertoire was rich in obscure standards, but it also included a few Jamal originals that indicate that there should've been more. (Incidentally, "Black Beauty is credited to Jamal, but it's really the Ellington standard given a wonderful, slightly abstracted reading.) This set also contains Jamal's first recording of his signature song, "Poinciana, of which he gave a definitive reading the following year. The later trio tracks from 1956 with Perkins show Jamal in full flower, his piano dripping with confidence and his interaction with the trio at its highest level.
Definitive's reissue is of a dodgy provenance, but the sound is decent. There are "legitimate" releases of this material, with the exception of the final trio tracks. But, as far I can ascertain, this is the only place to find all of Jamal's early trio recordings in one set.
Personnel: Ahmad Jamal: piano; Ray Crawford: guitar; Eddie Calhoun: bass; Israel Crosby: bass; Walter Perkins: drums.