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Interviews

Ahmad Jamal: Forward Momentum

By Published: July 6, 2010
AAJ: Even in the early '50s, when you led a drummer-less small ensemble, there was a tremendous swing and buoyancy in your music; was that ensemble styled on Nat King Cole's, or was there a special personal logic for having that type of formation?

AJ: The guitar, bass and piano ensemble was the result of my working with The Four Strings with the wonderful Joe Kennedy Junior, one of the masters of music. I was working as his pianist. My introduction to that approach came from period in The Four Strings; we had no drums. We had Edgar Willis, one of Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
1910 - 1981
piano
's favorite bass players, who joined Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Ray Charles
1930 - 2004
piano
later on. Joe Kennedy was the director and violinist, Ray Crawford and myself. Sam Johnson was the first pianist; I took his place. Sam was certainly one of the most competent players in the world. When I replaced Sam Johnson I got the idea for Three Strings, because that group dissolved and Joe went back to teaching. There was Ray Crawford and myself and Tommy Sewell on bass. It was a natural development from The Four Strings.

AAJ: You have released many live recordings over the last six decades but one which stands out, and this is purely subjective, is At Bubba's where your playing sounds utterly inspired; is this an album that you are particularly fond of?

AJ: No, no. That was done under great duress, great stress and great trauma. It was a period of trauma, great strain and great depression in my life.

AAJ: That's surprising. You're playing sounds so soulful on that record.

AJ: Well, sometimes hardship brings out some poetry, [laughs]. Sometimes. One of the great players of all time was Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
. I met Bill when we were both about seventeen. He came up with some unbelievable compositions, some gorgeous things and I got the impression he wasn't always happy. Sometimes some magic poetry comes out of our hardships. Astor Piazzolla
Astor Piazzolla
Astor Piazzolla
1921 - 1992
bandoneon
? Van Gogh who cut off his ear? Sometimes things come out of depression.

AAJ: It may be the most beautiful 36 minutes of playing you've ever committed to record, but it's only 36 minutes; where's the rest of the concert?

AJ: It's only 36 minutes? The whole vinyl is only 36 minutes?

AAJ: Yes. Is there any chance you might release the rest of that concert?

AJ: No, impossible. No way. There were not supposed to be any more tracks released from At The Pershing; we did four days and I selected eight tracks out of 43, and that was all that was supposed to be released, but record companies got so excited because it sold millions of copies and got extensive airplay so they released all the other things that weren't supposed to release. I don't believe in doing that. But I'm glad you like it, so something good came out of it [laughs].

AAJ: Watching your small ensemble in concert, what's striking is how closely together the three of you are positioned; is that because you hear better or because you have to give cues to the guys?

AJ: That comes from Monty Alexander
Monty Alexander
Monty Alexander
b.1944
piano
. He told me the best position to be in and he got it from Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
. The way I set up is the way Oscar Peterson used to. Does that have some validity? [laughs] You know, to have them all over to the left you'd have to have a megaphone. Why have the drummer way on the end of that piano?

That's the sound philosophy of Mr. Oscar Peterson, which came to me by way of Monty Alexander. He said: "Why don't you set up this way? It's the way Oscar sets up; it's the way I set up." If you're in a round everything is right there. Whenever a pianist is doing a concerto with any symphony that piano is in the center, it's right by the conductor. It's not all the way to the left; that's incorrect as far as I'm concerned. That's from Oscar Peterson; you didn't know that, right? [laughs]

AAJ: I didn't. That's very interesting, thank you for that.

AJ: I can't say that's my idea. I try to be honest [laughs].



AAJ: In the '90s you played with [saxophonist] George Coleman
George Coleman
George Coleman
b.1935
sax, tenor
in your group, and toured with him as well, and later with Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
1934 - 2000
sax, tenor
, but for forty-plus years you played without any horns in your groups; might you go back to using a horn in your groups?

AAJ: I have played in every configuration known and unknown to man [laughs]. When I was a kid I used to play with tenor saxophone and piano, no bass, no drums; big orchestras, small orchestras, solo piano when I was struggling in Chicago. When I joined Israel Crosby —I was Israel's pianist—we had John Thompson on tenor, so there we go again, saxophone, bass and piano.

AAJ: What year did you join Israel Crosby?

AJ: That was in '49. For a long time I was Israel's pianist—that's how I met him.

AAJ: Do you have ambitions to record in a new setting that you have never recorded in before?

AJ: Maybe I'll do some solo piano. I have some archival things I'm doing right now. Maybe I'll save some things for a solo piano recording, if they have some merit. That's one thing I haven't done; I've released some tracks playing solo but I haven't released a solo album.


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