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Ahmad Jamal: Ahmad Jamal: Saturday Morning

Ian Patterson By

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Just over a year after Blue Moon (Jazzbook Records, 2012) —Jamal's stellar homage to American cinema and Broadway—the Pittsburgh pianist returns in the same rich vein of form on Saturday Morning. Blue Moon earned a Grammy nomination, and for the second time in recent years Jamal was invited to open the Lincoln Center season in September; clearly, Jamal is enjoying his status as one of jazz's great, elder statesmen. Saturday Morning could almost be part of the same sessions that produced Blue Moon with its mixture of standards, new compositions and reworked older material. Like Blue Moon, this recording occasionally evokes his classic 1950s Argo years, only there's more meat on Jamal's arrangements these days, and remarkably, greater fire in his fingers.

Though drummer Herlin Riley and former Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena first played with Jamal in the 1980s, these latter two Jamal recordings have the feel of a new quartet, especially in the wake of the departure of long-standing drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist James Cammack. Happily, bassist Reginald Veal is much more prominent than on Blue Moon, engendering real swing and irresistible funk grooves. Stepping into Cammack's shoes—Jamal's bassist for 29 years—can't have been easy but Veal's lyricism, bold motifs and striking improvisations color the music greatly. Badrena conversely, plies his wares more subtly than before, while Riley keeps a simple, in the pocket groove throughout, rarely slipping the leash.

Jamal has created his own language on piano; on "Back to the Future" his jangling left-hand powers like rising flood water while rhapsodic right-hand explorations alternate between chordal steps, spinning flurries and long, cascading runs. On this opening number Jamal's two-handed synchronized run towards the finishing line and his trademark final punctuation epitomizes the sense of drama that inhabits his play. On "I'll always be with You" Jamal emerges from a tempestuous improvisation to land on the most delicate of blue notes, as though flung from a washing machine only to land on his feet immaculately attired.

Jamal admirers and detractors alike point to his continual, restless motivic development and compositions like the gently paced "Edith's Cake" and the grooving "The Line" have enough "fiddling and diddling"—to quote Cammack from a 2012 interview—to delight and frustrate according to taste. At his most fluid, when there don't seem to be enough keys on the piano to accommodate his dazzling runs, it's easy to see where pianist Hiromi Uehara finds much of her inspiration.

For all his technical dexterity and passion, Jamal is never more at home than when caressing and teasing the melody of a ballad. There are a few to savor here, notably a majestic rendition of "I'm In the Mood for Love" and Duke Ellington's "I Got it Bad and that Ain't Good." On the latter, Jamal plays with the melody, letting it drift before gently rekindling the flame. Bass, brushes and percussion lend tender support. Jamal can't resist quoting the melody to "Take The A-Train" here, and on numerous occasions throughout the album he exercises his penchant for quoting the popular melodies he has breathed for a lifetime.

Jamal pays tribute to pianist Horace Silver on the Afro-Caribean flavored "Silver," whose simple melody and uncluttered arrangement harks back to the Jamal of yesteryear. Similarly, the sparse architecture and beautiful minimalism of Saturday Morning recall At The Pershing:But Not For Me (Argo, 1958)—a million-selling album that cemented Jamal's reputation as an original and influential voice. The lilting melody of the title track is hypnotic enough for the quartet to repeat it throughout the song's ten-minute duration without it ever sounding less than charming —a signature tune to replace "Poinciana" perhaps?

The title track from One (20th Century Fox Records, 1978) seems like an unnecessary indulgence on an album that weighs in at a healthy one hour. Nevertheless, its jaunty melody and infectious groove will appeal to new fans and maybe send others back to rediscover an overlooked recording nestled in the middle ground of a discography that dates to 1951. "Saturday Morning (reprise)"—a three and a half-minute radio-friendly version—serves up that delightful melody one last time and burns it into the subconscious mind—if it wasn't already there.

Jamal proves once again that he's lost none of his customary elegance or electricity. His expansive imagination as an interpreter of standards—particularly ballads—remains almost unmatched. The four musicians sound fully molded to each other contours and the result is music that is fantastically tight yet exhilarating. Jamal is still minting great melodies, still blazing his own trail and—for many—still leading the way.

Track Listing: Back To The Future; I’ll Always Be With You; Saturday Morning; Edith’s Cake; The Line; I’m In The Mood For Love; Firefly; Silver; I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good; One; Saturday Morning.

Personnel: Ahmad Jamal: piano; Reginald Veal: double bass; Herlin Riley: drums; Manolo Badrena: percussion.

Title: Ahmad Jamal: Saturday Morning | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Jazz Village

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