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Ahmad Jamal: Ballades

Dan Bilawsky By

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At 89, Ahmad Jamal remains a master of space, time, openness and poetics. Never one to add too much, yet always one to mine a song for all its rich natural flavors, Jamal is an artist whose work speaks with a direct and engaging sweep. His early trio classics became a model of sorts, inspiring Miles Davis and many others, and his latter day, percussion-laced combo dates carry elegance and some swagger in their DNA. Now, showing us that he still has a surprise or two left up his sleeve, Jamal leaves the comforts of those formats behind, going (mostly) solo for Ballades.

Seven of the ten tracks constituting this album find Jamal all by his lonesome. His calling cards—vamping moorings, dancing lines, intelligent restraint, mastery over time, orchestral visions, a Midas touch—all play a part in the production. Originals like "Because I Love You," with the in-and-out left hand ostinatos lighting the way, and "Whisperings," with both seductive and scampering charms, mark Jamal as a man wholly comfortable in his skin. So too does "Poinciana," a reflection of past glories in the present tense. A hit for the pianist some 60 years ago, buoyed back then by Vernell Fournier's famous drum beat and Israel Crosby's supportive bass, he recasts it here as more of a reverie and cascading glimpse at romance.

Beauty and artistic certitude abound in other solo spaces—a patient trip through "Land Of Dreams" that lives up to its name, an "Emily" with curious asides and malleable time—but Jamal also saves some self-possessed playing for the three duo encounters with his longtime bassist, James Cammack. Reprising "Marseille" with Cammack and using it as the opener proves logical and appropriate, as all of this music was recorded at the same sessions that yielded Jamal's 2017 release of the same name. "So Rare" is just that, a jaunty find highlighting seemingly telepathic exchanges and pure trust. And the gossamer graces and dewy resonance of Rodgers & Hart's "Spring Is Here" melded with Bill Evans' "Your Story" makes for a pleasing shift in shine. It's tempting to suggest that Jamal's playing ages like fine wine, but that might insult the flavorful bouquet that's already been there for decades. Better to simply say that he remains a treasure capable of stirring passions without force or forced ambitions.

Track Listing: Marseille; Because I Love You; I Should Care; Poinciana; Land Of Dreams; What's New; So Rare; Whisperings; Spring Is Here/Your Story; Emily.

Personnel: Ahmad Jamal: piano; James Cammack: bass (1, 7, 9).

Title: Ballades | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Jazzbook Records

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