Ahmad Jamal: A Quiet Time

Ian Patterson By

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Ahmad Jamal

A Quiet Time

Dreyfus Records


Always reluctant to go into the studio unless he has material he is thoroughly satisfied with, pianist Ahmad Jamal's A Quiet Time could be considered as a follow-up to It's Magic (Dreyfus Records, 2008), given the relatively short period between the two releases. Stylistically, it is similar, with Jamal leading a habitual trio augmented with percussion through a set of (mostly) originals, a couple of which have been previously released. Jamal shows his complete mastery of styles though the idiom is, as ever, uniquely his own. At age 80, his playing, remarkably, is perhaps more fluid, more dynamic and more nuanced than ever before.

One significant change sees Kenny Washington - Vocals take over the drum stool from Jamal's first choice drummer since the mid 1990s, New Orleans legend Idris Muhammad. Washington's touch is a little lighter, but still full of the invention and agility that has been a hallmark of all Jamal's most important drummers, from Vernell Fournier through Frank Gant, Herlin Riley and Muhammad. Washington is the perfect time keeper and a subtle colorist, and he teams with Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena to swing the music effortlessly.

Nine of the 11 tracks are Jamal originals recorded between 1997-2009. There was a time when Jamal's repertoire consisted mostly of interpretations of others' tunes, drawn from a wide and eclectic range of sources, and in fact he has recorded just over 100 original compositions in a 60-year span. However, in latter years Jamal has penned the majority of the material he records and given the quality of the compositions on A Quiet Time it is a wonder he has not written more during his eight-decade career.

The lovely "Paris after Dark" contains everything for those still to discover Jamal's magic. A quietly stalking vibe gives way to all out swing with Jamal releasing little flurries of notes like small song birds scurrying from a cage, while Badrena's deft percussion lends a Caribbean air to the tune during the slower passages. When the ensemble kicks into a buoyant 4/4 swing, James Cammack's bass propels the music as Jamal teases the keys with short dancing figures, strolls up and down the keys, and punchy chord patterns. When the song appears to be winding dow, Jamal raises the tempo once more, keeping the listener guessing, before closing out in the original slow tempo.

Changes in time, timbre, rhythm, accent and mood are common to all of these compositions and there is great subtlety and imagination in Jamal's orchestrations, in his use of the quartet as a small orchestra. These are strikingly melodic tunes too, and Jamal flirts with the melodies, improvising around them. On the slower "The Love is Lost" it is easy to hear how Jamal is seduced by such a lovely melody, wanting to return to it again and again.

Jamal interprets a ballad like no other pianist, though the allure of many of his compositions is in their indefinite quality—a song like "Poetry" hovers between ballad and energy-charged exclamation, and the listener is taken on a ride where thrills and pregnant expectation tumble over each other, and what lies just around the corner is more often than not the unexpected. The out and out ballad "I Hear a Rhapsody"—which Jamal first recorded on Rhapsody (Cadet, 1966)— is performed here as a duet with Cammack. After 27 years in the ensemble, Cammack knows Jamal's playing inside out and the chemistry between the two on this exquisite lullaby is moving.

The other non-original is Randy Weston's "Hi-Fly." Jamal renders homage to a composer and pianist he has long admired with a handsome, swinging interpretation. His playing is impressive, alternating between high register patterns reminiscent of his earliest small ensembles and meatier fare. Another throwback in time is Badrena's conga playing, which mimics the patterns Ray Crawford used to tap out on the body of his guitar way back in the mid 1950s in Jamal's drummerless trio.

On the faster paced "Flight to Russia" Badrena's Brazilian cuica drum chirps beneath the pretty melody which Jamal embellishes and then chides with dramatic descending chords and low register keys like rumbling thunder. There is plenty of drama in Jamal's playing on this album to be sure, but less of the bravura style which has been a feature of his latter years. On songs like "After JALC"—inspired by the performance Jamal gave to open the Jazz at Lincoln Center's 2008 program—and "Tranquility" from Tranquility (Impulse!, 1968) there is a veritable spring in Jamal's step, a delicate touch that is altogether rare and nimble playing which belies his age.

It would be a task to select highlights from such a uniformly strong collection of compositions but "I Hear a Rhapsody," and the elegant "The Blooming Flower," with its gently lulling percussion and slowly unfurling piano, are perhaps the pick of the bunch. A Quiet Time is easily one of Jamal's most satisfying recordings in years, and quite possibly one of the finest of his distinguished career.

Tracks: Paris After Dark; The Love Is Lost; Flight to Russia; Poetry; Hi Fly; My Inspiration; After JALC (Jazz at Lincoln Center); A Quiet Time; Tranquility; The Blooming Flower; I Hear a Rhapsody.

Personnel: Ahmad Jamal: piano; James Cammack: bass; Manolo Badrena: percussion; Kenny Washington: drums.

Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Dreyfus Records | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream

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