Ahmad Jamal: Blue Moon
It is tempting to say that, at age 82, Ahmad Jamal carries on getting better and better, but that would be to miss the point. The pianist long ago reached a level of perfection from which it is simply not possible to get better. It is a level, however, to which he habitually returns. In 2010, Jamal released one of the most sublime albums in his long and splendid career, the quartet set A Quiet Time (Dreyfus Records). Two years later, he has released another one every bit as great.
The signature elements of Jamal's styleelegance, lyricism and sophistication on one side; vibrant, ostinato-driven grooves and riffs on the other; all heard, more often than not, during the course of a single tuneare not just still present on Blue Moon, they are still waxing. So too is Jamal's gift for writing arrangements which bring the sound of surprise to even the most familiar material. To all intents and purposes, Richard Rodgers' and Lorenzo Hart's "Blue Moon" here becomes a Jamal original, and so, among others, does Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody'n You."
For the Blue Moon sessions, Jamal stayed with a quartet but tweaked A Quiet Time's personnel. The wonderfully inventive percussionist Manolo Badrena is retained, but bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley replace James Cammack and Kenny Washington. Riley and Badrena have form with Jamal: Riley first came aboard on Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival 1985 (Collectables), and Badrena a year later, on Rossiter Road (Atlantic, 1986).
These three guardians of the groove interact with each other, and with Jamal, with micro-sensitivity. They are adept, too, at following Jamal's turn-on-a-pinhead arrangements. The quartet moves immaculately from the liquid to the lusty, from a whisper to a shout and back again, like birds of paradise in close formation. As Jamal observes in an All About Jazz 2012 interview, the simpatico between Badrena and Riley makes them an unusually effective percussionist /drummer team-within-a-team.
While nine of the 11 tunes on A Quiet Time were Jamal originals, on Blue Moon he returns, in the main, to the arena in which he first made his name: singular interpretations of Broadway show tunes, songs from the movies, and jazz standards. Of the Jamal compositions"Autumn Rain," "I Remember Italy," "Morning Mist," divine, each of themonly "Autumn Rain" has previously been recorded, on Rossiter Road. Jamal has also previously recorded three of the half-dozen standards: Gillespie's "Woody'n You" was first heard on At the Pershing: But Not for Me (Argo, 1958), Bronislan Kaper's "Invitation" on Rhapsody (Cadet, 1965), and Johnny Mercer's "Laura" as part of a medley on Live in Paris '92 (Dreyfus). The Blue Moon readings, as you would expect, are new minted and fresh garbed.
Jamal's critical acceptance in the mid 1950s was hard won and helped by the support of trumpeter Miles Davis, who, along with a number of widely reported endorsements, is said to have told his pianist of the time, Red Garland, to "play like Jamal." (True or not, Davis certainly valued the Jamal-like qualities inherent in Garland's playing). The then dean of American critics, The New Yorker's Whitney Balliett, on the other hand, reviewing a Carnegie Hall performance in 1958, found listening to Jamal to be "trying work."
Balliett was, most of the time, an informed and intelligent critic, and it is strange that he so totally did not get Jamal. Maybe Balliett had eaten something earlier that did not agree with him; the historical record can be a perverse beast. In any event, Jamal's genius was officially recognized in the US in 1994, when he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts. Many other honors have followed.
Entrancing and uplifting, Blue Moon is destined to make lovers of Jamal's pianism go weak at the knees all over again.
Tracks: Autumn Rain; Blue Moon; Gypsy; Invitation; I Remember Italy; Laura; Morning Mist; This Is the Life; Woody'n You.
Personnel: Ahmad Jamal: piano; Reginald Veal: double bass; Herlin Riley: drums; Manolo Badrena: percussion.