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Ahmad Jamal: San Francisco, CA, June 18, 2013

Ken Vermes By

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Ahmad Jamal
Symphony Hall
San Francisco, CA
June 18, 2013

SFJAZZ has accomplished a lot of things as it approaches its first half-year in its new building. Amongst them is revealing dedicated audiences for specific areas of the jazz universe, including piano-led bands. On the face of things, little may appear to connect two masters of this format, Ahmad Jamal, who performed on June 13 at Symphony Hall, and Brad Mehldau, who performed from April 26 to 28 at the new SFJAZZ Center. But both musicians and both groups are more similar than they might seem. In addition, in the development of the jazz-led piano trio format, a gradual and remarkable movement toward a dynamic rhythm-centric style has occurred—a reminder of the trio playing of saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson.

The piano is the primary instrument of jazz (and indeed of much classical music) for several reasons. It is the only instrument that can harmonize completely, including individual notes, and allow such wide changes in dynamics and therefore expression of mood (hence its full name, pianoforte). It can be played solo, or as the most complete partner for individual instruments or an entire big band. No other instrument can even come close to the power and complexity imparted by this instrument. The piano trio, sometimes including a percussionist, has slowly emerged as the primary format to showcase the instrument, reaching an apex with the emergence of Bill Evans and his historic series of recordings at the Village Vanguard in 1961. At this point, many piano-led bands and artists across the world are playing in trios, but only a handful have been able to make a career out of it. The fact that both Jamal and Mehldau have done so makes them members of a very elite group.

Both bandleaders have achieved a pinnacle of success and worldwide acclaim; both are virtuoso performers, not only with phenomenal technique but also mixing many styles to create considerable excitement in performance. At Jamal's show he featured a band that included drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Reginald Veal and percussionist Manolo Badrena. It was clear, from the very first notes, that the supporting players were central to the whole. In fact, this group lived and breathed through the surging rhythmical mix that has become Jamal's trademark. Jamal's "Invitation" was beautifully dissected by the group: terrifically executed, infused with dance rhythms, lovely dynamic flourishes and amazing dynamic range, the total control in every note Jamal played could be easily felt.

Back in April, Mehldau's trio included bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. As in Jamal's band, the powerful rhythm of the bass and drums was central to the trio. And it was woven into the musical mix with great delicacy, detail and art. There was never a moment where Ballard's sound interfered with the piano. Instead, he moved in and around the notes—at one moment forward and another in-between, dancing around and through.

Both bands established a groove, a powerful rhythmic surge that supplied the very essence of their sound. But what really linked both bands was the caliber of musicianship: both bandleaders and their respective band members were also tremendous musical entertainers. It was not difficult to understand how every note was part of the whole picture of sound that the pianists were painting. The trio format presented the absolute fundamentals of music, with thousands of possible configurations—and the chance to see exactly how pianists interact with their rhythm sections was a great opportunity to experience this most basic musical lesson. Only with rhythm and melody in harmonious embrace can the magic of this music be truly understood.

It is time for more trios to take the stage, led by such luminaries as Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Vijay Iyer, Jacky Terrasson, David Kikoski, Renee Rosnes, and many more. The SFJAZZ audience is ready.

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