Umbria Jazz: Days 7-10, July 16-19, 2009
It's surely not incidental, for example, that Jamal's quartet adds a well-armed percussionist, Manolo Badrena, to the standard trio configuration of Jamal's piano, James Cammack's bass, and Kenny Washington - Vocals's drums. Even before the music starts, the rhythmic component is already beefed up.
True to form, Jamal opened his set with the heavy left hand on his composition "After Fajr," with rumbling chords and Bach-like phrases, to which Cammack responded; then, when Badrena and Washington started in, he added three notes and stood up from the piano...to watch Badrena solo on congas, bongos, timbales, bells, tambourine, and a chain. Too, when he sat down again, it was to play a groove-heavy piano line with two-handed chords.
If percussion was a major factor on "After Fajr," later tunes would crystallize that factor and bring all players into the rhythmic matrix. "Balbec" was set to a subtle marching-band rhythm, Washington practicing rolls on the snare and hitting the hi-hat every two measures; Badrena's solo, on his various accessories, was the busiest and most interesting. "Portry" introduced a recurring element of instrumental doublingin this case, Jamal and Cammack weaved their lines together, dodging regularly between unison and bass accompanying piano. Washington, too, was making novel use of his instrument's traditional rhythmic delivery: He entered "Portry" riding the hi-hat and shivering the ride cymbal.
The doubling continued throughout the set. Jamal and Cammack regularly played either in unison or in harmony on the percussive melodies, Jamal regularly contributing his part with the thick chords on his left hand. On the long, closing "Swahililand," it was Cammack and Washington who ended up doubling between bass and ride cymbalan interesting development, considering that Jamal is notorious for the wide berth he gives his rhythm section. Apparently he has bred in his musicians a unique hearing of rhythm. Badrena was no small part, either, always ready with a lick or a polyrhythmic on his tambourine or timbales.
Yet Jamal's classic attributes as a melodist were hardly in the backseat. While his left hand hammered at low chords, his right fingers were contorting themselves around lovely high-pitched figures. His ballad "Flight to Russia" brought all his musicians to a wondrous lyricism, especially Jamal himself, with his thematic use of a three-note motif. Cammack was greatly mellifluous, too, with a two-handed solo line that also inherited Jamal's spaces; Washington and Badrena contributed beautiful fills on crash cymbal and bells against Jamal's delicate trills. "The Love Is Lost" balanced the crashing chords with soft meanderings that demonstrated why Jamal long had an (unfair) reputation for "cocktail jazz."
At 80, Jamal is as lyrical and moving a player as ever, but hearing his ideas about rhythm does change one's perceptionsit makes it all the more a crime that Ahmad Jamal is not a household-name jazz pianist.
There's no arguing that McCoy Tyner is one of the greatest and most influential pianists in jazz history. Nor is there any question that he has one of the tightest piano trios currently working, with bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt. And his guests, alto saxophonists Gary Bartzand guitarist Bill Frisell, are both brilliant. Which makes it all the more baffling that their concert together at Teatro Morlacchi was such a dud.
To be sure, none of the musicians had checked their chops at the door. Tyner's band came out swinging hardespecially Gravatt, who was loud and aggressive even on his ride cymbal (which he had mounted sideways so the top faced him); on "Angruna" he struck it dead center so it rang to the back of the hall. Cannon spent the evening making the most intricate bass lines and lyrical solos seem nimble and effortless ("Ballad for Aisha"), and Tyner himself played a dramatic improvisation in his unmistakable chord voicings on "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit" and beautiful passing harmonies on his solo performance of Coltrane's "Naima." Bartz had a strong solo on "3" and Frisell's folk-rock leanings came powerfully into play on "Angruna."