Kuala Lumpur International Jazz Festival: 19-20 May, 2012
After one of Jamal's stirring-the-pot introsall staccato chords, thunderous pressed drum rolls, tinkling percussion, darting bass runs and short piano glissandosas if to check that everything was ship-shapeJamal released the melody of "Invitation," the Bronislau Kaper tune that he first recorded on Ahmad Jamal with Strings (Rhapsody, 1966). Jamal used the melody as a springboard to develop improvisational themes for the guts of half an hour, throughout which he would allude briefly to the melody, as well as quoting "Billie's Bounce" in tribute to saxophonist Charlie Parker. The changes that Jamal called with a nod of the head, the raising of his left hand or sustained eye contact were responded to brilliantly by his musicians.
Such in-the-moment-communication explains why Jamal's trio is habitually positioned as closely together as possible, an arrangement suggested to Jamal years ago by pianist Monty Alexander, who was himself influenced by pianist Oscar Peterson's trio setup. The contrast with Hiromi's trio, spread across the entire stage, couldn't have been greater.
Former Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena was a constantly dynamic yet subtle presence. At one point, where Jamal brought the music down to a whisper, Badrena popped one explosive note that had Jamal turn in amused surprise. Jamalalong with Dizzy Gillespiewas one of the first jazz leaders of small ensembles to utilize a percussionist over half a century ago, and in Badrena he has found a particularly empathetic partner. Jamal let the music brew slowly, then raised his left arm in a slowly sweeping gesture that lifted the music, providing at the same time a striking image that underlined Jamal's orchestral approach to his music.
Jamal dedicated the episodic "Topsy Turvy" to Hiromi, flitting between tumbling runs and lyrical passages that seemed to pay tribute to pianist Bill Evans. Two tracks from Blue Moon (Jazz Village, 2012) showed different facets of the quartet. The title track exuded Caribbean swing, with Jamal mining Richard Rodgers/Lorenzo Hart's pretty melody as Badrena and Riley unleashed short but spectacular fireworks in stark contrast to Cammack's deep-rooted lyricism. Billy Reid's "Gypsy" succeeded much better live than on CD, as the visual drama of the precision-play between all four musicians was spectacular. Badrena's comic vocalizations brought an air of levity to taught ensemble interplay.
No Jamal show would be complete without his signature tune, Nat Simon/Buddy Bernier's "Poinciana." The pianist dedicated it to Rodin S.J. Kumar and Maizon Omar in recognition of their tremendous efforts in making KLIJF happen. In truth, it wouldn't have detracted from the concert one iota, had Jamal decided not to play "Poinciana." "One (Ahmad)"from Jamal's overlooked One (20th Century Fox, 1978)provided the set's most grooving composition and signaled the final hurrah. Jamal and his quartet's performance clearly touched the audience, which gave a rousing standing ovation in recognition of the fact that there is indeed, only one Jamal.
At 82, a day will come when Jamal's powers begin to wane but for the moment, this most influential of pianists is still following his muse and, judging by his outstanding performance at KLIJF 2012, playing just as beautifully as ever.
The challenge for the festival organizers now, is how do they top that? KLIJF 2012 was, musically speaking, a resounding success. In KLIJF, Kuala Lumpur has a music festival about which to be genuinely excited. Hopefully, the sponsors, media and public will give the festival the support it needs to sustain itself, not only for next year, but in the years and decades to come.
All Photos: Courtesy KL International Jazz Festival/Pein Lee