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Ahmad Jamal: After Poinciana


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Ahmad Jamal released a flurry of albums between 1958 and 1970, many of them recorded on location. These 20-plus records do nothing to tarnish Jamal and his ensembles’ reputation as among the most vital combos in the history of jazz.
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On Location and at the Penthouse

In an apparent effort to capitalize on the new-found popularity from his 1958 record, At the Pershing, But Not for Me (Argo LP628), Ahmad Jamal released a flurry of albums between 1958 and 1970, many of them recorded on location. Musically, it was a very productive period for Jamal, and these 20-plus albums do nothing to tarnish Jamal and his ensembles' reputation as among the most vital combos in the history of jazz.

Also released in 1958, the very fine At the Pershing, Vol. 2 (Argo LP667) includes 11 songs that were left off of At The Pershing, But Not for Me, including "Cherokee" and "It Might as Well be Spring." Israel Crosby is on bass, with Vernel Fournier on drums.

Here is the trio's take on Ray Noble's "Cherokee" from At the Pershing, Vol. 2.

Some 10 months after they recorded At The Pershing, Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier took the stage in September 1958 before an attentive and appreciative audience at The Spotlight Club in Washington, D.C. Originally released on three separate albums, the combined recordings were reissued in 2007 as Complete Live at the Spotlight Club (Gambit Records 69265). They are well worth a listen.

AllMusic critic arwulf arwulf (aka Theodore Grenier) wrote: "Best heard at sunset, late at night by candlelight, or in a cozy room softly illumined by indirect incandescence, this music offers the listener an opportunity to savor both what Jamal plays and what he doesn't play. His sense of timing, the way he employs contrasting dynamics and his quirky flair for the dramatic have always made Ahmad Jamal an exciting performer."

Here is "Let's Fall in Love" from Complete Live at the Spotlight Club.

The trio recorded its first album with an orchestra in February 1959. On Jamal at the Penthouse (Argo LPS646), recorded at Nola's Penthouse Studio in New York, the orchestra is arranged and conducted by Joseph Kennedy Jr. Also from Pittsburgh, Kennedy played violin with Jamal on The Four Strings in Chicago early in Jamal's career. Fournier is on drums with Crosby on bass as the trio, plus orchestra, plays "Ivy" by Hoagy Carmichael.

The trio headed into the Ter Mar Recording Studio in Chicago in January 1960 to record Happy Moods (Argo LPS662). The set includes eight standards, plus Jamal's "Excerpt from the Blues" and "Rhumba No.2."

Here is the trio's take on "Pavanne" by Morton Gould.

Listen to the Ahmad Jamal Quintet (Argo LPS 763), recorded in August 1960, reunites Jamal with former Chicago bandmates Kennedy on violin and Ray Crawford on guitar, along with Fournier and Israel. In addition to eight jazz standards, the quintet plays Kennedy's "Tempo for Two" and Jamal's "Ahmad's Waltz." Much more than just nostalgia, Listen to the Ahmad Jamal Quintet is a fascinating yet sadly overlooked record in its own right. And hearing Crawford again is a real treat.

Here's the quintet's delightful take on "Valentina," by Christine Reynolds.

Ahmad Jamal's Alhambra (Argo LPS 685) and All of You (Argo LPS 691) document the trio's June 1961 performances at the club Jamal opened thanks to his earnings from At the Pershing. AllMusic's Scott Yanow wrote: "The interplay between the musicians was often magical, as can be heard on such numbers as "We Kiss In a Shadow," "Love for Sale," "Broadway" and "Isn't It Romantic."

Here they are on "We Kiss in a Shadow" by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II from Ahmad Jamal's Alhambra.

Commenting on All of You, Yanow wrote: "Jamal's group had a personal sound of its own, often playing quietly and leaving space but never losing the passion. These versions of "Time on My Hands," "Star Eyes" and "All of You" in particular are well worth hearing."

Here is the title cut from All of You.

Post-Poinciana Blues

Even though At the Pershing, But Not for Me spent two years on the Billboard charts, sold a million copies and established Jamal's reputation as a major artist, the pianist faced considerable turbulence in his personal and professional life.

In late 1961, Jamal was forced to close The Alhambra, the Chicago restaurant and nightclub he opened so that he might curtail some of his traveling, after less than a year.

"In keeping with his religious beliefs, The Alhambra did not serve alcohol, which presumably hastened its demise," The New York Times surmised in Jamal's obituary.

"Three months later, he filed for divorce from Maryam Jamal, formerly named Virginia Wilkins, whom he had married when he was 17.

"Five years of court action followed, during which Mr. Jamal was arrested and charged with nonpayment of child support for their daughter. He was later cleared. He was hospitalized in 1963 after an apparent overdose of sleeping pills."

Jamal's ensemble was also in flux. He dissolved his group in early 1962 to take a break from touring. Bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier joined George Shearing's group, but Crosby died of a heart attack in August 1962 at age 43.

RIP, Israel Crosby

Jamal shared a long and eventful history with bassist Israel Crosby.

"I worked with Israel before he worked with me," Jamal told Ted Panken. "I joined his trio with the late Johnny Thompson and worked at Jack's Back Door for maybe a year. It was a very interesting job. We played everything, all kinds of tunes. It was great.

"And of course, the remarkable thing about Israel is that he was a master of intonation. His intonation was flawless, just absolutely flawless. And a tremendous ear. Again, here's a man that knew many, many, many compositions. He knew all the tunes. You couldn't play a tune he didn't know. He was just a phenomenal bassist in the fullest sense of the word."

Jamal also explained what he looked for in a bassist: "The bass essentially has to be an extension of your left hand, as Al McKibbon was in the case of George Shearing, and as Israel was and as Jamil Sulieman Nasser was when he was working with me. So that's what the role of a great bassist is as he or she relates to the pianist."

Crosby recorded Gene Krupa's "Blues of Israel" when he was with Krupa's band in 1935.

Last Call

Jamal's first great trio played what were likely its last shows at The Blackhawk in San Francisco's Tenderloin District in January and February 1962. Here is Jamal's classic trio playing "I'll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine" from the excellent Ahmad Jamal at The Blackhawk (Argo LPS 703).

In December of 1962, Jamal (sans his former bandmates) recorded another album with an orchestra. For the South America-inspired Macanudo (Argo LPS 712), the orchestra was conducted by arranger and bassist Richard Evans, who also wrote all the songs. His "Bogota" would become a regular part of Jamal's repertoire.

"Bogota" by Richard Evans.

Musical Chairs

Independent record producer Zev Feldman (aka "The Jazz Detective") shed new light on Jamal's mid-'60s performances and his ensemble in transition. With Jamal's blessing, starting in 2022 Feldman released three double albums titled Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse (Jazz Detective, DDJD 001-003) that document Jamal's performances at the Seattle club from 1963 to 1968.

Zev Feldman describes the process.

These sessions can be seen as a de facto audition for Jamal's next ensemble. On the first disk of the first set, Jamal is joined by Chuck Lampkin on drums and Richard Evans on bass. Jamil Sulieman Nasser replaces Evans on the second disk and would remain with Jamal until 1975. On the second set, Lampkin alternates with Frank Gant and Jamal's previous drummer, Vernel Fournier. By the third set, Gant had become the regular drummer and would remain with Jamal until 1978.

Lampkin was also the drummer on 1964's Naked City Theme (Argo Records DJLP733), recorded at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop. The title song was written by Billy May and Milt Raskin. Gant played drums on the same song on Emerald City Nights in 1966. It wasn't unusual for Jamal to reimagine a tune from one performance to another, depending on the group's personnel, the audience and his musical instincts.

Lampkin on drums.

Gant on drums.

Chuck Lampkin was a fine drummer, but Gant seemed to be a more supple, laid-back and intuitive complement to Jamal and bassist Nasser. The song sounds lighter with the sticks in Gant's hands.

During the mid-'60s, Jamal released several albums dominated by contemporary pop songs with decidedly '60s-style record covers: The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd (Argo LPS751), with all compositions by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse from their musical; Rhapsody (Cadet LPS764); Heat Wave (Cadet LPS 777); Cry Young (Cadet 792); and The Bright, the Blue and the Beautiful (Cadet LPS 807).

After many years recording for Chess and its subsidiary, Argo, Jamal switched to ABC Records for his 1968 release Tranquility (ABC Records ABCS-660). On Tranquility, Jamal covered pop tunes such as Burt Bacharach's "I Say a Little Prayer" and "The Look of Love," as well as Joe Kennedy's "Illusions Opticas," Jamal originals "Tranquility" and "Manhattan Reflections," and a few standards. Sulieman Nasser is on bass, with Gant playing drums.

Jamal's music could be subtly subversive, and Bacharach's "I Say a Little Prayer" and "The Look of Love" received the Ahmad Jamal treatment on Tranquility.

Jamal agreed to do the recording session, but he was determined to play it his way, which might not have been what ABC had in mind. Jamal's brooding interpretation of the peppy "I Say a Little Prayer" feels jarring and musically dissonant to our Bacharach/Dionne Warwick-conditioned ears. Warwick's "I Say A Little Prayer," released in April 1966, peaked at No. 4 on Billboard's Top 100 Pop Singles in December 1967.

Years later, Warwick told journalist Mike Wallace that behind Bacharach's pop hit was a hopeful message from the songwriter to American soldiers that they hadn't been forgotten during the height of the Vietnam War.

Dionne Warwick: "I Say a Little Prayer."

Ahmad Jamal's version.

In general, Jamal's on location recordings during this period are more indicative of where his musical compass was pointing than his studio records. For instance, Ahmad Jamal at the Top, Poinciana Revisited (Impulse AS9176), recorded in 1968 at The Village Gate in New York, suggested "a more percussive style," according to AllMusic critic Tom Jurek.

Here is the trio on Jamal's composition, "Lament," with Gant and Sulieman Nasser.

The Awakening

Recorded in February 1970, The Awakening (Impulse! AS9194) was something of a shocker. While it didn't immediately generate the fanfare that At the Pershing had, it was a radical leap forward. Like At The Pershing, Jamal's 1970 record was ahead of its time, and some people consider The Awakening to be Jamal's second great album.

Although Jamal habitually deconstructed well-known songs and reconstructed them in unexpected ways, he seemed to take that technique to a new level on The Awakening. Along with his own compositions—"The Awakening" and "Patterns"—Jamal covered Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," "Stolen Moments" (a perennial Jamal favorite) by Oliver Nelson and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave," as well as "I Love Music" by Emil Boyd and Hale Smith, and a 1931 chestnut, "You're My Everything," written for a New York City revue titled The Laugh Parade.

In his liner notes, Leonard Feather wrote:

"An overview of the entire album brings into focus another important aspect of the Jamal genius: though he has moved with the times, has continued to progress ideationally, he retains the same essential characteristics that have always marked his work: the ability to extract from a composition everything the writer put into it (sometimes more), and that same distinctive sound that established his national popularity back in the days of But Not for Me and seems likely to sustain him forever."

"The Awakening."

Decades later, record producers and artists from a different era would mine songs like Jamal's haunting version of "I Love Music" from The Awakening for a very different style of music.

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