Monday, February 01, 2010

Ahmad Jamal Trips Out: The 20th Century Recordings

After a long stretch of records for the Argo/Cadet label dating back to 1955, Pittsburgh-born piano prodigy Ahmad Jamal opted in 1968 to “retire” from recording to set his sights on running his own trio of labels. Unfortunately, the capital required to run his business had to come from further recordings of his own. Producer Bob Thiele talked Jamal into recording, not for the high-profile Impulse label that Thiele oversaw at the time, but for the more pop-oriented owner of Impulse, ABC-Paramount, for which Thiele had also helmed many productions.

The resulting album, 1968’s Tranquility (reissued in 1973 as an Impulse album), maintained Jamal’s working trio with bassist Jamil Sulieman and drummer Frank Gant, but differed from previous recordings in that there was a higher quotient of Jamal originals and a more contemporary spin on pop cover tunes (“The Look Of Love,” “I Say A Little Prayer”).

Jamal migrated to the Impulse label just as Thiele was leaving and recorded the live Ahmad Jamal At The Top – Poinciana Revisited and the studio classic, The Awakening. He finished out his Impulse tenure with two recordings from his appearance at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival, Freeflight and Outertimeinnerspace, where he no doubt shocked the crowd in much the same way Dylan did back in 1965, by introducing an electric instrument into his repertoire.

He didn’t give up the Steinway altogether though. But it was very clear that when he touched the electric piano, he’d heard sounds he’d never explored before and discovered nuances that were new to his thinking.

Going electric was good for Ahmad Jamal. When he switched back to the piano, you could hear the change in his playing. His phrasing nearly did an about face. Indeed, he began to fill those spaces Miles Davis praised him for with new modes, dramatic flourishes and a revelation of all his left hand could do to orchestrate a mere trio.

Meanwhile, Jamal’s entrepreneurial venture had unfortunately not succeeded and the handful of little-known records that were released in 1969 and 1970 on three imprints (AJP, Jamal and Cross) sort of just disappeared. But these, too, were of monumental importance to the musician’s way of thinking.

To hear them, you’d never know that the great pianist had anything to do with them. There is the South African groove of Jonas Gwangwa (Jamal), the Jamaican funk of Carlos Malcom, the psych rock of Julius Victor, the cosmic fuzz of Stark Reality, the R& B soul of Johnny “K” (all AJP) and the deep church gospel pronunciations of Norman Clayton and Beverly Glenn (both Cross).

Since Ahmad Jamal has hardly ever gigged on other people’s records, his presence is more likely that of benefactor on these records than as participant. But there is little doubt that his heart, his soul, his ears and his thinking were opened wide to new directions in sound.

This is the Ahmad Jamal who transitioned from his former self to appear, of all places, on the 20th Century Records label in 1973. The label, an outlet for the better-known film and TV studio, was home to many film soundtracks such as Jerry Goldsmith’s Patton (and later, John Williams’s precedent-setting Star Wars score), pop acts like the DeFranco Family, and, most profitably for the label at that time, Barry White and his various groups.

From the start, Ahmad Jamal was virtually the only jazz act at 20th Century and, strangely, it stayed that way throughout his entire tenure with the label, which ended pretty much with the label’s demise in the early eighties.

20th Century clearly offered Ahmad Jamal the freedom to do as he pleased, providing him an outlet to explore music on his terms, in his own way. There seems to have been little corporate interference or pressure to produce copy-cat jazz, mainstream reprises or fusion filler.

Ahmad Jamal recorded prolifically for the label, serving up five studio recordings and two “compilations” of singles, outtakes and previously unreleased recordings between 1973 and 1980 and a “best of” package spanning the 20th Century years issued in 1981. These recordings remain among the very best of Ahmad Jamal’s career, summing up much of his recorded output during the 1970s and, sadly, all of these albums, out of print for many, many years, have not ever appeared on CD before – and aren’t expected to anytime soon.

Ahmad Jamal ‘73 (20th Century, 1973): Reuniting in Chicago with another former Argo/Cadet mainstay Richard Evans (the two produced 1962’s Macanudo together), Ahmad Jamal uses his 1973 debut on the suspiciously un-jazzy 20th Century label to go fully electric. Long an expensive collector’s item and DJ favorite, the electrified Ahmad Jamal ‘73 contains many superb moments worth sampling – and many have done just that. The well-chosen, well-covered pop tunes take up side one and include War’s “The World Is A Ghetto” (the album’s single release), The Jones Girls’ “Children of the Night” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Side two features the nicely grooving “Sustah, Sustah,” a soulful piece of near spiritual jazz probably written by Evans under the moniker Ra Twani Za Yemeni. Throughout, Jamal entrances and amazes as a very credibly individualistic electric pianist. Unlike other periodic forays onto the electrical instrument, Jamal sticks to Fender Rhodes throughout every song on the album. Evans sprinkles in hints of horns, sparks of strings and the occasional voice, but always in a complementary style that never hinders, overwhelms or outshines the keyboardist or his unnamed rhythm section. The album’s centerpiece is undoubtedly “Peace at Last,” one of the finest pieces of 70s funk ever heard and the funkiest thing Ahmad Jamal has ever done. The piece was composed by the little-known Chicago-based musician Charles Colbert (b. 1939), who also co-wrote the fine Blaxploitation funk of “Keep on Trucking,” the 1973 45-only B-side to Jamal’s 45 of “M*A*S*H Theme.” It is unknown whether Colbert, who was the bassist in the earliest formation of Rufus, but left music around this time to go into the ministry, participated as a musician on Jamal’s album. “Peace at Last,” though, is an extraordinary piece and Jamal invests in it all of the magic he possesses on the Fender Rhodes. While the album is probably a pretty costly treasure to obtain, “Peace at Last” makes it worth every penny. It is one of Ahmad Jamal’s finest performances in a very long career of fine performances. Surprisingly, the very Andy Warhol-like front cover image of Ahmad Jamal was not done by Andy Warhol. The photo, though, is by celebrated fashion photographer Norman Seeff. Available to download from the great Smooth at My Jazz World.

Jamalca (20th Century, 1974): The second of Ahmad Jamal’s 20th Century albums is this interesting, if not entirely successful, mix of electric and acoustic takes on mostly soulful pop numbers. Jamal spins electric gold out of The Spinners’ “Ghetto Child,” Foster Sylvers’ “Misdemeanor” (a justly oft-sampled piece, with a great Richard Evans arrangement), Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” and the surprisingly engaging “M*A*S*H Theme.” Jamal then switches to the acoustic piano for “Along The Nile” (written by the same Ra Twani Za Yemeni who contributed “Sustah, Sustah” to the previous Ahmad Jamal ‘73), “Jamalca” (Jamal’s only original here, an interesting gospel-meets-Jamaican tryst), Gordon Parks’ “Don’t Misunderstand” (from Shaft’s Big Score), which gets a strangely old-timey arrangement from Evans, and drummer Brian Grice’s moderately interesting “Theme Bahamas.” The pianist switch-hits the acoustic and the electric keyboards on the intriguing “Children Calling,” composed by the Joel Beal(e) of “Soul Girl” from the pianist’s previous album. The groove stays pretty loose and funky, even when Jamal is on the acoustic piano. But it just feels a little more fractured than it should, and more forced than it did before. Throughout much of the album, Jamal is supported by arranger/bassist Richard Evans and drummer Brian Grice. On the “M*A*S*H Theme”, Jamal is accompanied by the pianist’s regulars (at the time), Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Gant on drums. By way of elaboration, the “M*A*S*H Theme” featured here was first issued as part of the 1973 TV soundtrack album (Columbia S 32753) and also appeared on a 1973 45 on 20th Century. Jamal gives this surprisingly brief performance a most distinctive reading. The Columbia album’s liner notes enthuse that Ahmad Jamal is “one of the most exciting of all of today’s instrumentalists.” The album’s annotator further elaborates that the tune in Jamal’s hands gets “a Seventies excitement laid on the now familiar melody composed by Johnny Mandel.” This wickedly electric treatment became something of a hit for the pianist, who often played it in concert throughout the next decade or so and recorded another interesting electric variation for his 1980 Motown album,Night Song. Jamal also recorded the song in a more acoustic environment for his great 1985 album Digital Works.

Jamal Plays Jamal (20th Century, 1974): While Ahmad Jamal seasoned many of his previous albums with original compositions, he had never had a whole album dominated by or devoted to his own compositions before this 1974 release. The pianist presents six of his own compositions here and sticks to the Steinway grand piano for most of the occasion in the familiar company of bassist Jamil Nasser, drummer Frank Gant and percussionist Azzedin Weston (Randy Weston’s son, who passed away in 2007). Backed by Richard Evans’ mostly spare backgrounds. Jamal Plays Jamal returns the pianist to a familiar groove that listeners of his earlier Impulse! albums would recognize and appreciate. The record helps to unlock the unique artistry and the passionate logic Jamal brings so marvelously to other people’s music. The album’s highlights are surely “Eclipse,” “Spanish Interlude” and “Swalililand” and while their construction hint at other tunes, these are quintessentially Jamalian in fact, fashion and fascination. Coincidentally, each of these tunes features the pianist stating his melody on the acoustic piano and soloing it out on the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Surprisingly, of these three pieces, Ahmad Jamal kept only “Swahililand” in his repertoire, often performing it and recording it again for Crystal (1987), After Fajr (2004) and It’s Magic (2007). Sadly, the rest of the album borders on rather pointless exposition, with Jamal presenting musical ideas or fragments that are strung together rather than fully developed as tunes. Even the songs’ evocative titles hint at this. “Pastures” meanders around some soundtrack-like string quartet whole tones, allowing Jamal to get a bit too florid on the keyboard and making the song feel even longer than its six minutes and 40 seconds. Likewise, “Dialogue” rambles about, always threatening to get started before it ends nearly nine minutes later without any real point or perceptions and “Death & Resurrection” (which also features a Fender Rhodes solo) dispels any mood or moods it might be trying to evoke by constantly shifting key changes. Still, the album’s three highlights offer nearly 25 minutes of exciting and worthy music that’s a very significant thread in the Jamlalian fabric.

Steppin Out With A Dream (20th Century, 1976): While this above average musical document is several steps above the previous Jamal Plays Jamal, the album’s title, Steppin Out With A Dream, which has nothing to do with any of the music presented here (the album was issued as Prelude to a Kiss in Europe), and the cover graphics show that Ahmad Jamal, or his record label, was a little out of step with the times or the expectation of the times. Even the music, though superb, seems a tad out of step with what anyone might expect from a jazz pianist in the Bicentennial year. Jamal presents three strong originals (none of which he has recorded since), “Handicapper,” the all electric “Tucson” and “Crossfire” and two rather long piano/bass duets for the jazz standards “Prelude to a Kiss” and “My One And Only Love.” The pianist, on the electric piano for the “Handicapper” and “Crossfire” solos and throughout “Tucson,” is accompanied by bassist John Hurd (sic - who goes electric on “Tucson”), guitarist Calvin Keys, drummer Frank Gant and percussionist Selden Newton (the last three are not heard on the two standards). “Tucson,” is the most obvious bow to fashion here, almost nearly breaking from Jamal’s typically complex jazz structure into good old simple funk. Funky, though it is, it is not a funk tune, nor is it as easy to classify. The long ballad explorations elicit Jamal’s great love for timeless melodies and elucidate the way many of his ideas truly jettison mere musical themes. Ahmad Jamal was playing – and, as a result, thinking – at the very top of his game here, and clearly he was able to present the music his own way – avoiding any of the corporate pressure major labels placed on musical artists for the next “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Chameleon” or any dip into the commercial music cesspool (which would have meant disco in the day). The underrated California-based guitarist Calvin Keys, who was heard on the pianist’s 1975 45-rpm single, “Pablo Sierra” and later on Live at Oil Can Harry’s (1976), One (1978), Night Song (1980) and Live In Paris 1996, adds a surprisingly complimentary element to the proceedings. He brings a welcome touch of soulful wit to the proceedings in a way that Ray Crawford, Jamal’s previous guitar partner, had all those years ago, accenting the pianist with adept distinction and no sign of declarative domination. The album’s highlights are, undoubtedly, “Handicapper” (which many discographies erroneously list as “Handclapper”) and “Crossfire,” but “Tuscon” will appeal to anyone who holds Ahmad Jamal ‘73 in deserved high regard.

One (20th Century, 1978): This was the first fashionable bent pianist Ahmad Jamal took toward pop acceptance during the 1970s, and while it’s a fairly decent attempt, it never found much of an audience in jazz or elsewhere. Given its attempt for formulaic success, Jamal surprisingly sticks to the acoustic piano nearly throughout the record (his odd clavinet on “Black Cow” is the only exception), leaving the electronics to such studio keyboardists as Mike Melvoin (“One,” “Just the Way You Are”) and Steve Bowling (“Black Cow”) – the only time Ahmad Jamal ever recorded with other keyboardists! Like Night Song (1980), the pianist’s next studio album, there is also an unusually high preponderance of L.A. studio musicians on board here and some then-fashionable pop covers in Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” and Steely Dan’s “Black Cow” (the tune “Jet” heard here is the old Nat King Cole chestnut and not the Wings song some discographies and reviews suggest). The pop tunes get some strange, sub-disco arrangements that hardly suit the pianist or what he might have done to transcend these songs. But he gives it the old college try and almost succeeds in giving the Billy Joel number his stamp before some thudding rhythm comes in to dumb it all down. The most notable performance here is the album’s stunning opener, “One (Ahad),” co-written by bassist Welton Gite and vocalist Sigidi B. Abdullah, aka Sigidi, both of whom were working with Gary Bartz at the time, and neither of whom are featured musicians here, despite Sigidi’s sporadic arrangements throughout. Something about this track shouts out Ahmad Jamal. So thoroughly does he own the hypnotic groove and deliberate pacing of the piece, it could suggest no one else. The pianist would continue to perform this song in concert and he was heard to record it again on the 1981 live sets captured with vibraphonist Gary Burton that have been issued in many different packages and also as part of Digital Works (1985). The album’s other highlights include Jamal’s own distinctive “Dynamo” (which the pianist recently re-recorded on the 2007 album It’s Magic) and the messy and rather lesser “Festival,” both sextet performances showcasing Calvin Keys on guitar, John Heard on bass and Eddie Marshall on drums and Kenny Nash on congas. Outtakes from this album found their way onto both Genetic Walk and Intervals, suggesting there might not have been a real strong plan behind One, despite the exceptionally fine presence of “One (Ahad)” and “Dynamo” that makes the record exceedingly worthwhile anyway.

Genetic Walk (20th Century, 1980): The first of two compilations of previously-recorded and mostly unreleased tracks Ahmad Jamal laid down during his time at 20th Century Records during the 1970s. While this record’s sleeve thankfully contains musician credits throughout, there are no recording dates – and no indications to suggest this is anything other than “new” music despite the back cover’s credit that the “compilation (is) produced by Michael Stewart.” One can possibly “sort” out the album by the various producers noted. “Pablo Sierra” is, without a doubt, a 1975 45-only release that many probably never knew existed until this 1980 album was issued (there could have been an album planned around this time – there are three more songs on the following Intervals compilation that probably date from this period). It is likely that both “Bellows” and “Time for Love” are outtakes from the 1976 album Steppin Out With A Dream. A whopping four of the eight songs presented here (“Genetic Walk,” “Chaser” “La Costa” and “Don’t Ask My Neighbors”) were produced and arranged by frequent collaborator Richard Evans for what sounds like an aborted 1977 album project. And “Spartacus Love Theme” is probably an outtake from the 1978 album One. Despite the variance of time and recording environments, the set is a consistent and surprisingly satisfying collection of Jamalian jests. There’s nothing at all wrong or leftover-feeling about this set and the many highlights include “Genetic Walk,” “Chaser,” the electric lounge funk of “Pablo Sierra” and the pianist’s own exploratory “Bellows” (which also features on Live At Oil Can Harry’s, Pittsburgh, Chicago Revisited and Live in Paris 1996). Curiously, the label issued this album’s “Don’t Ask My Neighbors” as a 45-rpm single. Available to download from the great Smooth at My Jazz World.

Intervals (20th Century, 1980): The second of the two compilations of mostly unreleased recordings the pianist Ahmad Jamal made for the 20th Century label during the seventies, Intervals is a bit more inconsistent and shows why some of these performances, most of which are well above the average outtake, were left off the original releases. It’s a quirky record as programmed here and will certainly not be to all tastes. It’s harder to determine the origin of many of this record’s tracks, but “Reggae” and “Boatride” are no doubt additional outtakes from the 1976 album Steppin Out With A Dream. Certainly the ultra-brief “Excerpt from My One And Only Love,” oddly included here, comes directly from this particular album. “You’re Welcome, Stop On By,” “Jordie,” “The Tube” (which Jamal recorded again on his Live In Paris 92) and “Bones” are most likely outtakes from Jamal’s 1978 album One or part of an unfortunately aborted follow-up to the album. Jamal’s cover of Cole Porter’s “So In Love” could have come from anywhere – it is both timeless and, sadly, without much musical distinction to place it in any way. The album’s most significant highlight is an excellent cover of Bobby Womack’s 1974 hit “You’re Welcome, Stop On By” (with Ahmad Jamal on both acoustic and electric piano – and possibly even synthesizer!), a DJ favorite and something that has been previously sampled. It’s a great song, a great cover and probably something that deserved to give Ahmad Jamal a hit single (though I don’t think it was ever issued as a single, for whatever reason). Other highlights include “Boatride,” “The Tube” and, at times, “Bones,” all excellent and worthy of more notice than they ever got here.

The Best Of Ahmad Jamal (20th Century, 1981): An odd and hardly accurate or satisfying collection put together by Michael Stewart, who collated the previous two 20th Century compilations, featuring “Soul Girl” from Ahmad Jamal ‘73, “Swahililand” from Jamal Plays Jamal, “Prelude to a Kiss” from Steppin Out With A Dream, “Black Cow” and “Dynamo” from One and “Don’t Ask My Neighbors” and “Genetic Walk” from the Genetic Walk compilation. I would need about two full CDs to put together a real “best of” Ahmad Jamal on 20th Century Records. I would probably also include a few tunes from the simpatico 1980 Motown album Night Song (“When You Wish Upon A Star,” “Bad Times,” “Night Song,” “Theme From M*A*S*H”), which is also owned by the Universal Music behemoth. Hopefully the ageless Mr. Jamal won’t have to die before someone finally puts out all of this incredibly fine and satisfying music for us to hear, enjoy and appreciate.


Arnaldo DeSouteiro said...

Terrific post. Your writing and knowledgement never cease to amaze me! I cannot find enough words to express my admiration. Please write a book!!!
Ironically, besides the fusion masters such as Hancock, Corea, Deodato and Bob James - Zawinul was a different case because he was the only one capable to make a Rhodes sound like a synth -, the guys I most admire playing Fender Rhodes are two "masters of the acoustic piano": Ahmad Jamal (you wrote all about it, there's nothing I could add!) and Bill Evans, on albums like "New Conversations," "Symbiosis," "From Left to Right" and "Affinity." Evans' performance on "Jesus' Last Ballad," from "Affinity," is one of my Top 10 Rhodes favorites ever. Although "acoustic geniuses," they were able to develop a highly personal style and a very creative approach on the Fender Rhodes.
I should also add to the list Oscar Peterson (specially on "The Silent Partner"), Randy Weston (his legendary "Blue Moses" album), Kenny Barron (his solo on George Benson's studio version of "Take Five" from "Bad Benson" is a masterpiece) and, in the special category of arrangers, Gil Evans, whose artistry on the Fender Rhodes was featured in a splendid duo album with Steve Lacy ("Paris Blues"). I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter and these artists. Respect, Arnie

Douglas Payne said...

Thank you, Arnaldo, for your insightful and wonderful commentary. You open a whole world of great thought and emotion here. While I agree with so many of your points, I wish that I could say that I had the benefit of hearing some of the examples you site, particularly some of the Bill Evans pieces you mention. I am sure I would agree most whole heartedly. The Fender Rhodes does not have one fraction of the respect it deserves - and the musician-practioneers of the instrument have not been given anything near to their proper due for what they have accomplished on that great musical instrument. I think I could further add to your list some great "electric piano" performances, some that factor into my favorite music of all time, but that would take quite a bit of doing. Your initial listing is food enough for consideration. Well done...and thank you, as always, for your musical insight.

ish said...

If you haven't seen them you might enjoy my friend Simon's blog entries (with reviews, a lot of info, and downloads) on some of the rarer 70s Jamals in your review here.