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Ahmad Jamal: Forward Momentum

Ian Patterson By

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Ahmad Jamal, possibly the most influential of living jazz pianists, turned 80 years young on July 2, 2010. It is however, business as usual and instead of celebrating at home in his slippers, Jamal was wowing an audience at the Montreal Jazz festival.

Jamal is touring now more than ever before, and is in demand all over the world. Judging by his 2010 touring schedule, he does his best to oblige, with concerts in Australia, Brazil, and Canada, as well as a couple of dates in Europe sandwiched between North American performances. The tour is in support of A Quiet Time (Dreyfus Jazz, 2010), another outstanding example of Jamal's craft. His enviable energy and creative drive have seen him produce some of his best recorded work in this last decade, and albums like After Fajr (Dreyfus Jazz, 2004), It's Magic (Dreyfus Jazz, 2008), and, now, A Quiet Time constitute some of the finest piano recordings of modern times.

Throughout a long career which began in the late 1940s Jamal has amassed a truly impressive body of work. This NEA Jazz Master and Duke Ellington Fellow has also been, and continues to be, a reference for many musicians, pianists and non-pianists alike. For Jamal however, there is no time for nostalgia or basking in past glories. If you ask him which record gives him the most satisfaction he will tell you: "the next one."

All About Jazz: Firstly, congratulations on A Quiet Time; it's another excellent addition to your discography.

Ahmad Jamal: Well, thank you. I'm experiencing some benefits from it and people seem to be delighted with it. We're waiting for the next one now.

AAJ: We certainly are. You recorded A Quiet Time in New York, which was a change after many years recording in France; what brought about this change of location and recording studio?

AJ: Timing, it was timing. The company wanted me to go into the studio and do a follow-up to It's Magic and, of course, it's very difficult to get me in a studio. I'm not one who goes in and out of studios at a rapid rate. To better facilitate things I found a studio in Brooklyn that I liked very much. It's the first recording I've done in the States for some period of time. It worked out very, very well.

AAJ: You seem to have a special relationship with France where you are revered; in general, would you say that the appreciation of your music is greater in Europe than in America?

AJ: No. People are the same everywhere; they have two eyes, two ears, a nose. Music has no barriers; Mozart is the same in Russia as he is in New York. Duke Ellington is the same in Paris as he is in Manhattan. The only thing that's different in Europe is the presentation. Our presentation in the United States leaves a lot to be desired. You don't have John Coltrane or myself, or George Shearing or Dave Brubeck on television every day, but in Europe they do. They give some exposure to this great contribution to the culture of the world.

The fact is that the presentation in Europe is much more sophisticated, and we take it for granted here, when there are people coming from all over the world to study at Berklee and all the other institutions we have. The appreciation for the music is the same everywhere but the presentation is different. You'll never see a great neon sign like I have when I do the Olympia, not any place in the United States. I've had these kinds of marquees all over the world, but not in the United States.

AAJ: Does it annoy you that American classical music as you like to call jazz doesn't have the same prestige nor the financial support as European classical music is accorded?

AJ: We're getting there. We have the NEA Masters, the Duke Ellington Fellow Award and we have keys to the city; it depends on who you are and what you are and where you are. Our standing is commensurate to the American classicists. I think we are experiencing a level of understanding that makes sense.

AAJ: Coming back to A Quiet Time your drummer, Kenny Washington - Vocals, plays beautifully, but why didn't you use Idris Muhammad. who has played with you for many, many years?

AJ: He wasn't available; he was ill. He's one of the greatest drummers of all time. I've had four great drummers from New Orleans, beginning with Vernel Fournier, Idris Muhammad, Herlin Riley, and [now] Kenny Washington. I used Kenny because Idris has retired. He's gone fishing instead of just a-wishing.

AAJ: We wish Idris a very happy retirement. Who's the drummer in your touring band?

AJ: Herlin Riley, and when I don't use Herlin I use Troy Davis, who Herlin recommended. He's also a wonderful drummer from Louisiana.

AAJ: Have you sought out New Orleans drummers over the years or is it just the way it's turned out?

AJ: I prefer what works; if they come from Alaska and it works I'll go with that. It just happens that my historic drummers have been from New Orleans. I'll use drummers from any part of the world if it works. Like the Steinway piano, it works for me so I've been using it for fifty years. With John Hammond on my right and Fritz Steinway on my left in 1960 I endorsed the piano and they endorsed me. It's the same with New Orleans drummers [laughs].

AAJ: You've recorded a number of the songs on A Quiet Time before, which was also true of it's Magic; you seem to share Duke Ellington's philosophy that a composition is never finished but constantly evolving—is that fair to say?

AJ: There's no such thing as old music; that's something I share with Duke Ellington. The European classicists keep repeating the same body of work so there's no such thing as old music; it's either good or bad. I'll quote a wonderful pianist who's passed away recently, Frank Richmond: "Finished but not never."

AAJ: Another musician who passed away recently was bassist Jamil Sulieman Nasser...

AJ: Jamil was from Memphis and he was with me ten years. He had a truly fine ear. He came to New York with one of the most profound players in our history, and that's Phineas Newborn, Jr.. He also worked with Oscar Denard, who the world doesn't know about, but he was one of the finest pianists in the world. He toured Africa with him so he was a pioneer in the fullest sense of the word. He worked with B.B. King, and I think he did three hundred and sixty four one nighters in one year with B.B. King. Jamil was a giant.

AAJ: A lot of your arrangements, even in a small ensemble, have an orchestral quality to them; who influenced you in that regard?

AJ: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my city, which has produced the finest musicians in the world; that's where Billy Strayhorn comes from, that's where Erroll Garner comes from, that's where Earl Hines comes from, Billy Eckstine, Ray Brown, Art Blakey, Eddie Clarke, Earl Wild, Gene Kelly, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Maxine Sullivan, the great singer. We all come from an orchestral city; Pittsburgh. That's where all my inspiration comes from.

AAJ: Someone who is mentioned a lot as having influenced you is Errol Garner and that's well documented, but what about Earl Hines?

AJ: Earl was an orchestral influence, not so much pianistically. The pianistic influence was more Art Tatum, Errol Garner and Nat King Cole, not particularly in that order but in any order you choose. They were equally influential.

AAJ: Many musicians—from Duke Ellington through John Coltrane and up to Brad Mehldau today—have spoken of the difficulty of ending a song; the start is no problem and making your way through the song is no problem but they talk of the difficulty in ending a song. Is that something you can relate to?

AJ: I have no difficulty starting or ending a song; my compositions dictate themselves. There are an abundant number of ways to do that but I adopt a certain form that happens to be my signature form, you know, certain endings that no one uses but me. My difficulty these days is finding the time to write, what with your blackberries and blueberries and computers and iPods and all this junk they have; if you can extract yourself from all that you have no problems with endings [laughs].

AAJ: On A Quiet Time the percussionist, Manolo Badrena, makes a big impact; you've worked with him a lot over the years, what do you like in particular about his playing?

AJ: Manolo is a remarkable player, that's why he was with Weather Report and Joe Zawinul, one of the great pianists, composers and orchestrators to say the least, for 32 years.

AAJ: Do you tell him exactly what you want, or does he bring his own thing to the mix?

AJ: He recorded with me years and years ago. He knows what to do. I have certain things I specialize in and he affords me the opportunity to exhibit my specialty as he's a great listener.

AAJ: You were using congas over fifty years ago, weren't you?

AJ: That is correct. I've been using percussionists for years. There were only two people who used percussion early on and that was me and Dizzy Gillespie. I used to have a group with percussion, bass and piano. It wasn't always guitar or drums. I've been tinkering with and working with percussion for years and years. It's not anything new.

I had a guitarist, another Pittsburgher, Ray Crawford, and he was mimicked by Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis and a lot of others, and he used to get a conga effect on the frets of his guitar on my early recordings, so everybody started imitating Ray Crawford. We've always employed some sort of percussive effects one way or the other, but I was working with actual congas years and years ago.

AAJ: Another musician who worked with you in the very earl days was bassist Richard Davis; what do you recall about playing with him?

AJ: One of his first engagements was with me. He's a person who can play in any symphony orchestra in the world. He was trained in the European classical tradition and then he became very competent in the American classical tradition when he was working with me and other people like Thad Jones's great orchestra every Monday at the Village Vanguard. He's one of the great educators now; he's a professor at Wisconsin. He worked and recorded with me early on, until he went to New York with the great pianist Don Shirley, on some records you've probably never heard on the Parrott label. Those masters were later purchased by Leonard Chess.

AAJ: On A Quiet Time you record pianist Randy Weston's "Hi-Fly." Your mutual admiration for each other is well-known, but just how significant a composer do you think Weston is?

AJ: He's one of the most underrated composers and orchestrators, especially composer. His son worked with me for a long time, the late Azzedin Weston, who was one of the great percussionists of all time. I don't use the adjective greatest because there's no such thing as greatest. That's a mistake that we make, we use this term too loosely. But Randy is one of the great composers. I ran into Randy in Morocco years ago when he had his club there. "Hi-Fly" is one of my favorite compositions and I was tempted to record it many, many times but I never liked the result, but this time I released it.

AAJ: One of your most celebrated small ensembles was the one with Vernell Fournier and Israel Crosby, which is still talked about today and with good reason, but the formation of much of the last two decades with Idris Muhammad and James Cammack must rate pretty highly by comparison in your own mind, no?

AJ: Different; different but good [laughs]. The combination of Israel and Vernell, I was too young to fully appreciate what I had. I was not mature enough. I was busy trying to get work, trying to do this, trying to do that; now I know what I had. Other people certainly have appreciated it including Mosaic Records who are putting out a whole volume of the early recordings. They've been trying to get me to approve a release of the historic years with Fournier and Israel Crosby for years. Kenny Washington has done the liner notes for that. There are all these awful pirate, unauthorized recordings coming out, so Mosaic and Michael Cuscuna are trying to offset some of this trash is out there which is unreleased and I don't get paid for. It goes on and on.

That's one of the pitfalls of the record business and that's why that's we have no record business now, because of the inability of the record companies to control this plagiarism. There's a little spot between Spain and France and it's replete with this kind of nonsense—it's just criminal. Mosaic wants to offset this nonsense by doing the right thing and paying me for it. They've been after me for eight years to release recordings focusing on the Fournier, Crosby years and I've finally conceded.

AAJ: That's great news for music lovers. Why did you resist Mosaic's offer for eight years?

AJ: As I said before I resist going into the studio period. Even at my commercial peak, when I had a million seller when Leonard Chess and I produced At the Pershing, that historic release 628, they wanted me to go into the studio three or four times a year, but I wouldn't do it. I don't go into the studio until I feel confident and ready. I don't release things just for the sake of releasing them; they have to be logically sound. They have to have some rationale that appeals to me.

AAJ: Coming back to Muhammad and Cammack, some would say that they form one of the great rhythm sections of modern times, would you agree with that?

AJ: Oh, Idris is known as one of the great players of all time and James has only been with me for 27 years, so that says something right there, doesn't it?

AAJ: Absolutely. Cammack's playing on A Quiet Time is so beautiful that it warrants listening to all by itself. All of your ensembles over the years have been characterized by a very democratic approach to playing where every musician expresses themselves fully; was this something that you learned from a significant teacher or is it an innate sensibility on your part?

AJ: Well, all Pittsburghers are singularly different. No-one writes like Billy Strayhorn, no-one approaches the guitar like George Benson, no drummer plays like Art Blakey, no bassist plays like Ray Brown [laughs], no-one sings like Billy Eckstine, no-one approaches the piano like Errol Garner... so all of us are different. It's a phenomenon like New Orleans [laughs]. We make different statements that echo around the world.

AAJ: Returning to A Quiet Time, could you explain what's behind the title of "After Jazz at Lincoln Center"?

AJ: "After Jazz at Lincoln Centre"? A lot of people ask me that. That was a composition inspired after I opened the 2008 season with one of the great orchestras of all time I must say. I thoroughly enjoyed performing there and the composition was inspired by that. I'm still working on it.

AAJ: Wynton Marsalis has been described by Nat Hentoff as, and I quote—"the preeminent jazz educator of out times"—unquote; but his detractors accuse him of not moving with the times. Do you think that the Lincoln Center, with all the resources it has at its disposal, is right to largely ignore the modern jazz, or American classical music if you prefer, that is being made in America today, and I'm thinking of people like Craig Taborn, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver, Mathew Shipp, Greg Osby to name just a few?

AJ: I have nothing but immense admiration for Wynton and what he's done so it's very difficult for me to have anything but positive feelings. I love Wynton and I love what he's done. He has been almost single handedly responsible for what we have showcasing American classical music properly in that building that they put up in New York City. That should happen all over the world. I just shake my head in admiration at what he's done. The negatives are so minuscule and unimportant, if any exist. What they have done there is nearly perfect.

AAJ: Ahmad, who excites you of the modern generation of musicians? Maybe in New York, for example.

AJ: There are a bunch of wonderful players. Who excites me? My listening habits are very varied. I listen to anything of great merit and great potential. It's very hard for me to name names. Not only am I interested or excited I am also interested in promoting the careers of some of these youngsters.

AAJ: On that note there was a letter of yours to the editor of JazzTimes in April, 2010, regarding misrepresentation of the facts regarding your role and your manager Laura Hess-Hay's role in helping launch the career of Hiromi. For the record, would you mind explaining the story, please?

AJ: They published that letter? There are three entities that have been instrumental in fostering and helping Hiromi's career; the Yamaha Music Foundation comes first. The person who took her to Telarc records and exposed her, recording-wise, to the world was Laura Hess-Hay; she was very close to Bob Wood, the President at that time. Laura took her to Telarc records and I took her to the world by exposing her to the great, great people like George Wein and Carlo Pagnotta at the Umbria, Perugia festival, and I told them: "I want you to listen to somebody." The rest is history. YMF, Laura, Hiromi and myself.

Hiromi knows what she wants to do and where she wants to go. She's got her head screwed on properly. My manager Laura Hess-Hay and myself are her co-managers, along with the Yamaha Music Foundation. Is that clear?

AAJ: Very. Thanks for clarifying that. These days you mostly play your own compositions but throughout your career you have interpreted a large and rather eclectic choice of songs, though with the exception of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," you haven't generally been drawn to songs from the modern popular musical cannon; are there no songs from say, the last twenty years, that you are tempted to interpret and record?

AJ: I did one thing by The Beatles at a particular period of my career; I did "Michelle." I'm not saying it's ever going to happen again, but I'm too busy composing myself now. I'm in the Ahmad Jamal composing mode; I do eighty percent Jamal and twenty percent other stuff.

AAJ: On A Quiet Time you sound remarkably athletic and energetic; how much time do you spend on the piano every day to maintain that condition, if I can call it that?

AJ: Not enough. I try to look at my pianos every day but the discipline of practicing a certain number of hours a day, I've lost that. I do subscribe to quality, not quantity. Muhammad Ali said, years ago, that he was tired of jogging to stay in shape. You can practice eight hours and get nothing or you can practice fifteen minutes and get a world of accomplishment. You have to enjoy what you're doing.

AAJ: When you practice are you always thinking compositionally or do you practice to stay in good shape?

AJ: I can't separate the two. When I play a scale I still think compositionally, when I think of composition I think of execution. I can't separate the two.

AAJ: The title of one of your albums, Outertimeinnerspace (Impulse!, 1972), could almost be your epitaph; rhythm and space have been constants of your music from the very beginning. Would you say that these two things are the most important ingredients of your music?

AJ: Other people call it space, I've never called it space. I call it discipline. There has to be discipline within music. It's also important what you don't hear. You know, Maurice Ravel has a rest here and there. There has to be a period of silence where the timpani player lays out, or the strings lay out; that's what we call rest or pause. You have to have stops and goes and that is what I have engaged in all my life. If it's go-go-go all the time with no discipline then it ain't gonna happen.

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's favorite bass players, who joined Ray Charles 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. 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? 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. He told me the best position to be in and he got it from Oscar Peterson. 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 in your group, and toured with him as well, and later with Stanley Turrentine, 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.

AAJ: I remember there was tremendous excitement when you played London in '96, or maybe '97, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall because it was the first time you'd played London for something like 33 years; why did you stay away from London for all those years?

AJ: I stayed away from Europe. The last time was in '63 with the master Hampton Hawes. I wouldn't have gone back, but for Jean-Francois Deiber, one of the great people in my life. He owned Birdology Records, whom I recorded for. He persuaded me to come back.

AAJ: Why did you stay away from Europe all that time?

AJ: I was never a touring musician. I'm not a migratory bird. I don't like to travel. I'm a home person. I'm touring now more than I've ever done; I'm just did a tour of Australia, Brazil, Switzerland, France...I'm happy to be home. My favorite venue is home, and has been all my life.

AAJ: You've influenced a large number of pianists, some well documented like Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau and Jacky Terrasson; would you say that this is your greatest musical legacy?

AJ: I have to leave that to the historians and the public and the journalists. How can I sit and think about my legacy? I'm always going forward. I don't think about what I have done but what I have yet to do.

Selected Discography

Ahmad Jamal, A Quiet Time (Dreyfus Jazz, 2010)

Ahmad Jamal, It's Magic (Dreyfus Jazz, 2008)

The Ahmad Jamal Trio, Pavanne for Ahmad (FiveFour, 2007)

The Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Recordings (Definitive Records, 2006)

Ahmad Jamal, After Fajr (Dreyfus Jazz, 2004)

Shirley Horn, May the Music Never End (Verve, 2003)

Ahmad Jamal, In Search of Momentum (Dreyfus Jazz, 2003)

Ahmad Jamal, Olympia 2000 (Dreyfus Jazz, 2000)

Ahmad Jamal, Ahmad Jamal with The Assai Quartet (Roesch,1998)

Ahmad Jamal, The Essence Part 1 (Dreyfus Jazz, 1995)

Ray Brown, Some of my Friends are Piano Players (Telarc, 1995)

Ahmad Jamal, Rossiter Road (Collectables Records, 1986)

Ahmad Jamal, Live at Bubba's (Who's Who in Jazz, 1980)

Ahmad Jamal, Jamalca (20th Century, 1974)

Ahmad Jamal, Outertimeinnerspace (Impulse!, 1972)

Ahmad Jamal,The Awakening (Impulse!, 1970)

Ahmad Jamal,Extensions (Impulse!, 1965)

Ahmad Jamal,Cross Country Tour 1958-1961 (Argo, 1962)

Ahmad Jamal,Ahmad Jamal At the Pershing (Argo, 1958)

Ahmad Jamal,But Not For Me (Argo, 1958)

Ahmad Jamal,Chamber Music of the New Jazz (Argo, 1955)

Ahmad Jamal,The Three Strings (Epic/Legacy, 1951)

Photo credits

Page 6: C. Andrew Hovan

All Other Photos: Courtesy of Ahmad Jamal

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