Ahmad JamalThe Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions 1956-62Mosaic Records
If you're familiar with pianist Ahmad Jamal, it's more likely through his reputation and not through his music. Trumpeter Miles Davis
famously remarked that Jamal taught him to be more economical in his playing: that the notes that aren't played are just as important as the ones that are. He was an enormously influential pianist in the 1950s who, despite a hit recordLive at the Pershing
(Chess, 1958)has a catalog and legacy that has remained on the fringes, available mainly as imports.
It's to be hoped that this Mosiac set, comprising 9 CDs that cover the years from 1956-1962 when Jamal was recording for the Argo label, will change all that. While each individual session is worthy of merit, the entire body of work is astonishing in its musicality and consistency, and shows that once Jamal hooked up with Israel Crosby
on bass and Vernell Fournier
on drums they formed one of the best trios working in the 1950s and 1960s, a unit capable of peeling off one terrific recording after another.
To get a good idea of what these guys were up to, the much-celebrated Pershing sessions (on this set's second disc) is as good a place as any to start. Pick any tune here, and you're likely to be pleasantly surprised by the way that Jamal creates a vamp that seemingly disguises the tune he's about to play, yet blends seamlessly into the melody. And keeping in line with Jamal's tendency to play only the notes he needs, entire phrases are chopped out and felt rather than heard (his ability to edit these melodies to their essence is astonishing.) Jamal will then work his way around the melody, frequently improvising in the upper register of the keyboard, creating solos from sometimes as little as two notes and creating new vamps that play off of the original melody. Jamal was weaned on pianists like Earl Hines
and Fats Waller
and thus is more concerned with creating a groove than fashioning dazzling improvisations. "Moonlight in Vermont" is a terrific example of this: Jamal starts off with a groove that seems to have little to do with the original (which could hardly be called groovy anyway), then plays through an abridged melody before suddenly switching into waltz time. It works wonderfully.
Yet "Poinciana" from these sessions is the real classic and the best recording ever of this classic tune. It is also a showcase for the considerable talents of Crosby and Fournier, who each brought something to the table in fashioning the trio. Crosby was the consummate bassist, one who was comfortable playing sturdy bass lines in the background to emphasize the beat. Fournier, sticking to brushes for the first few years, adds a conga rhythm with a mallet that subtly shifts throughout the eight-minute tune. Both musicians were key to creating the bedrock Jamal needed for his harmonic wanderings: by sticking closely to a four-to-the-bar beat and creating toe-tapping vamps. It all adds up to some breezy playing and cool swinging, as light and appealing as a crisp autumn breeze.
The trio was never better than in its live performances and the majority of the recordings are from places like the aforementioned Pershing, the Alhambra (the club Jamal opened so he wouldn't have to spend so much time on the road) and the Blackhawk. The Blackhawk dates feature the most unreleased material and the most alternate takes (the trio was remarkably good at nailing a performance the first time around.) The progression of six years shows the development of Jamal's trio from an antsy, explorative one determined to create interesting variations on classic tunes, to one that stuck close to the melody and sculpted perfect renditions of the tunes they had played before. The chords are a bit thicker around the melodies, the tempo is more relaxed, and the trio has the feel of someone who is so deeply in tune with one another that they could nail a great version of a tune every time.
Of course Jamal spent some time in the studio with his trio, a couple of dates that crystallized some of the ideas he was working out in the clubs. There are some interesting detours along the way, including a somewhat saccharine recording with strings as well as some recordings featuring violinist Joe Kennedy
and guitarist Ray Crawford
(a former member of the trio when it was a Nat "King" Cole
influenced group.) While not as good or interesting as the trio recordings, they nevertheless show how easily Jamal could adapt his style to a variety of settings.
Simply put, The Complete Argo Recordings
is one of the most consistently enjoyable sets Mosaic has ever released. This is a noble effort to reorganize the piecemeal releases of some fantastic and influential material that has never been adequately compiled. Jamal's Argo recordings are some of the best piano trio recordings, and this collection is one of the best of the style ever assembled.
CD1: Volga Boatman; On Green Dolphin Street, How About You; I Just Can't See For Lookin'; Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year; Beat Out One; Maryam; Easy To Remember; Jim Loves Sue; Secret Love; Taking A Chance On Love; Cheek To Cheek; It's You Or No One; Soft Wind; Love; Aki And Ukthay; Love For Sale; That's All.
CD2: But Not For Me; Surrey With The Fringe On Top; Moonlight In Vermont; (Put Another Nickel In) Music! Music! Music!; There Is No Greater Love; Poinciana; Woody 'N' You; What's New?; Too Late Now; All The Things You Are; Cherokee; It Might As Well Be Spring; I'll Remember April; My Funny Valentine; Gone With The Wind; Billy Boy; It's You Or No One; They Can't Take That Away From Me; Poor Butterfly (B) 3:37
CD3: Taboo; Should I; Stompin' At The Savoy; The Girl Next Door; I Wish I Knew; Cheek To Cheek; Autumn In New York; Secret Love; Squatty Roo; That's All; This Can't Be Love; Autumn Leaves; Ahmad's Blues; Old Devil Moon; Seleritus; It Could Happen To You; Ivy; Tater Pie.
CD4: Let's Fall In Love; Aki And Urkthay (Brother And Sister); You Don't Know What Love Is; I Didn't Know What Time It Was; So Beats My Heart For You; Gal In Calico; Our Delight; Too Late Now; The Night Has A Thousand Eyes; Little Old Lady; For All We Know; Pavanne; Excerpts From The Blues; Easy To Love; Time On My Hands; Raincheck; I'll Never Stop Loving You; Speak Low; Rhumba No. 2.
CD5: Comme Ci, Comme Ca; Ivy; Never Never Land; Tangerine; Ahmad's Blues; Seleritus; I Like To Recognize The Tune; I'm Alone With You; Sophisticated Gentleman; Ahmad's Waltz; Valentina; Yesterdays; Tempo For Two; Hallelujah; It's A Wonderful World; Baia; You Came A Long Way From St. Louis; Lover Man; Who Cares.
CD6: I'm Old Fashioned; We Kiss In A Shadow; Chi-town (aka Gem); We Kiss In A Shadow; Sweet And Lovely; The Party's Over; Love For Sale; Snowfall; Broadway; Willow Weep For Me; Autumn Leaves; Isn't It Romantic; The Breeze And I.
CD7: Time On My Hands; Angel Eyes; You Go To My Head; Star Eyes; All Of You; You're Blasé; What Is This Thing Called Love; Poinciana; We Kiss In The Shadow (alternate take); Stella By Starlight; The Lady Is A Tramp.
CD8: I'll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine; Like Someone In Love; Falling In Love With Love; The Best Thing For You; April In Paris; The Second Time Around; We Live In Two Different Worlds; Night Mist Blues; Darn That Dream; On Green Dolphin Street.
CD9: Like Someone In Love (first alternate take); The Second Time Around (first alternate take); Angel Eyes; Alone Together/Love Walked In; Smoke Gets In Your Eyes; I'm Old Fashioned; We Kiss In The Shadows;The Second Time Around (second alternate take); Like Someone In Love (second alternate take).