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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 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].


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