That a Japanese mountaineer successfully scaled Mount Everest in May 2008, at the age of 75, is proof that age is no barrier to those with new goals to conquer. If pianist Ahmad Jamal, at 78, were a mountaineer, he too would surely be attempting to scale Everest. There are those, however, who argue that Ahmad Jamal reached a creative peak in the late '50s, but the truth is that Jamal is neither better nor worse than when he recorded the classic Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing
(Argo, 1958) and But Not for Me
(Argo,1958). He has simply evolved, and done so without compromising or losing his musical identity. The tremendous energy, finesse and sheer originality present in It's Magic
, which has characterized much of Jamal's music this last decade in particular, is evidence that there is plenty of life in the old dog yet.
The opening "Dynamo" is, however, something of a misnomer. Jamal and his musicians' energy levels are unquestionably high, but the tune is a bit stop-and-start. It's as if, like a young pianist debuting, Jamal wants to say all he can inside four minutes. There are the trademark contrasts between light and heavy touch, alternating punchy chords and short staccato bursts interspersed with longer, dazzling runs, and here and there flirtatious reference to old standards and even The Beatles. The song is not without merit, but there's almost too much going on.
Thankfully, Jamal steers a steadier course on the remaining tunes. The grandiose and elegant "Swahiliand," a perennial Jamal favorite, is reappraised with drummer Idris Muhammad's cymbals marking the pianist's bold chord changes. Jamal has recorded this tune at least four times since the '70s; like Duke Ellington, for Jamal a song is not something with limitations or fixed parameters, it is an ever-evolving work. Similarly, "Arabesque," first recorded on Crystal (Atlantic, 1987) gets a brush down. An infectious bass motif from James Cammack and gently percolating percussion from ex- Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena lend this beautiful melody a delicate, lilting swing.
There are several old show-tunes: the softly played "It's Magic," by Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne, which finds Jamal at his intimate best; Ned Washington and Dimitri Tiomkine's "Wild is the Wind," which segues into "Sing," by Joe Rapaso, where Jamal gives his most extended workout; and the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields ballad, "The Way You Look Tonight," where Jamal is sensitively accompanied by Cammack on bass. This latter tune and the self-penned "Papillon" are reminders that few pianists can play a ballad the way Jamal does.
Four old tunes revisited, three show tunes and only two completely new tunes might sound like a less then indispensible Jamal recording, but in spite of this, his playing is as sensitive, as passionate and as hypnotic as it's ever been. At 78, fifty years on from one peak, and three years on from yet another, the universally acclaimed After Fajr (Dreyfus, 2005), this most influential of pianists shows no signs of slipping off the mountain top just yet.