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Ahmad Jamal: Saturday Morning

Chris May By

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"Play like Jamal," Miles Davis told his pianists in the mid 1950s. The trumpeter was not shy about recruiting band leaders or poaching their musicians, so you might suppose he canvassed Jamal. But the pianist maintains Davis never popped the question. Interviewed in 2012, he side-stepped the subject, saying that he was in any case too busy leading his own band to consider offers from Davis or anyone else. "I lived a block and a half from Miles when I moved to New York," Jamal continued. "But we didn't hang out. We had a quality relationship, not a quantity relationship."

In the 1950s, Davis was attracted to Jamal's interpretations of ballad standards—which were so prettily romantic that Jamal's detractors considered him little more than a hyped-up cocktail-bar pianist (and, ludicrously, pointed to his popular success as proof of it). Even Whitney Balliett, the generally tuned-in jazz writer on The New Yorker magazine, failed to get him. Lush ballad readings have continued to be the bedrock of Jamal's style, but, as he increasingly added his own compositions to his set lists, visceral ostinatos became another trade mark. There was a time when Davis would likely have embraced those, too.

Both signatures run through Saturday Morning: La Buissonne Studio Sessions, on which Jamal leads the same quartet that helped take the album's immediate predecessor, Blue Moon (Jazz Village, 2012), into many end-of-year best-of lists. Saturday Morning merits a similarly warm reception.

On both discs, the quartet plays a mixture of standards and Jamal originals, with the pianist producing. This time, though, the band recorded in France rather than in New York, and the proportion of originals is a little higher. Those things aside, everything about Saturday Morning is the same as it was on Blue Moon, and before that on A Quiet Time (Dreyfus, 2010)....and before that, on-the-one ostinatos aside, on practically any Jamal album you can name back to But Not For Me: At The Pershing (Chess, 1958). Which is to say, as close to perfect as it gets.

Out of respect and affection, it is customary to write of any octogenarian musician (Jamal is 83) that he is playing with as much vigour as he did as a young man. With Jamal, however, it is the unvarnished truth. If anything, he is playing with more command. There was no need for a percussionist in Jamal's early groups, but Manolo Badrena, who first recorded with Jamal on 1986's Rossiter Road (Atlantic), fits right in today, supporting—not driving—the leader's more rhythmically intense flights, and adding textural detail and colour to the gentler passages.

Jazz has never been more lyrical than it is in Jamal's hands, and Saturday Morning is yet another high water mark in his inspirational career.

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: Saturday Morning | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Jazz Village

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