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 Vernell 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.
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