Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Ahmad Jamal

The legendary jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal died at his home in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, on Sunday, April 16, 2023. He was 92. Born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 2, 1930, Jamal stormed the jazz world with his 1958 trio album Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing – But Not For Me, notably for his dazzling, hypnotic performance of “Poinciana.”

Ahmad Jamal actively toured throughout the remainder of his life (except during a brief “retirement” in the late sixties) – well into his late eighties. He also recorded many records for the Argo/Cadet, Impulse, 20th Century Fox, Atlantic, Telarc Jazz, Birdology, Dreyfus Jazz and Jazz Village labels.

His most recent releases found the reluctant-to-revisit-the-past pianist agree to issue two sets of previously-unreleased live performances, recorded in the mid-sixties at Seattle’s historic jazz spot, The Penthouse. More is said to be forthcoming from Jamal’s Seattle sets and will be welcome by those of us who savor everything Ahmad Jamal has ever played.

Ahmad Jamal first came to my attention via Digital Works, his 1985 “comeback” recording. At that point, the pianist’s previous studio record came a whole five years before and in that brief time the music had gone through quite a bit of change.

The disc, which included newly-recorded versions of Jamal favorites like “Poinciana,” “Wave,” “Theme from M.A.S.H.,” and my personal obsession, “One” (originally from a 1978 Jamal album), was mesmerizing. Another favorite, a version of Natalie Cole’s “La Costa,” makes this an incredible listening experience. To these ears, Digital Works remains one of the greatest jazz records of the eighties, despite its frosty reception among critics.

Jamal’s follow-ups, Rossiter Road (1986) and Crystal (1987), are equally wonderful. Ahmad Jamal came back in to my life during his masterful series of discs dubbed “The Essence,” where the pianist paired with such surprising co-conspirators as Donald Byrd, Stanley Turrentine and Othello Molineaux.

Thereafter, I dug deep into Ahmad Jamal’s back catalog. There was the Richard Evans-arranged gem Macanudo (1963), the Bob Thiele-produced Tranquility (1968) and, more notably, the brilliantly electrified Ahmad Jamal ‘73 - which a memorable trade ad billed as “Ahmad Jamal Trips Out.” The 1973 album features the classic break “Peace at Last,” surely one of the greatest grooves ever waxed.

This led to an obsession with Ahmad Jamal’s little-known albums on the 20th Century label (hardly a jazz label), issued between 1973 and 1980. This is an awesome – and slightly unusual – chunk of the pianist’s recording career. Embarking on a campaign to get these albums reissued on CD – or at least pull together a compilation of the material – proved to be an effort in futility. Indeed, Jamal’s 20th Century records remain unavailable on CD and streaming services as of this writing.

Mr. Jamal strenuously resisted revisiting his past and only relented at the very end with the Emerald City Nights sets captured at The Penthouse.

While Ahmad Jamal’s 1970 classic The Awakening (Impulse) is surely among the pianist’s very best discs, I consider it a “desert island disc” and a pitch-perfect document of Ahmad Jamal’s singular artistry.

This is where the magic is: in the spaces and the notes for which he is duly celebrated. Jamal honed his conception and craft very early on, refining it throughout his career. I believe he reached his apex here, a plateau that was more of a long line than a mere point. In my 1997 review of The Awakening, I am more than a little excited by what I heard but awestruck by what Jamal achieves:

Ahmad Jamal’s third of five excellent Impulse! recordings between 1969 and 1972 finds the pianist in a conservative transitional period. He was recorded at Argo /Cadet from 1955 through 1968 in trio, with orchestras and even vocal choirs. Subsequently, he’d explore more popular material and electronic sounds on the 20th Century Fox records made throughout the balance of the 1970s. The Awakening, from February 1970, is, like his other Impulse! sessions, one of those classic trio sessions that stands out as among the pianist’s best. Featuring Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Gant on drums, The Awakening is highlighted by two superb Jamal covers in Oliver Nelson’s "Stolen Moments" and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s "Wave." The pianist’s trademark simplicity pays tribute to these oft-covered tunes like nothing you’ve ever heard. Jamal, like Chopin (to these ears), can simplify and beautify the most complex and demanding pieces imaginable while losing none of the emotional or compositional complexity. He beautifully integrates his right and left-hand playing, and never once betrays a tendency toward barrel-housing in either. This leads nay-sayers to conclude he is simply nothing greater than a 'lounge pianist.' But it’s that beauty (evident on his Tatum-esque approach to Herbie Hancock’s "Dolphin Dance" or his Debussy-like handling of "I Love Music") that deserves further aural exploration. Jamal’s is a sound to be savored. Other compositions of note here include Jamal’s "The Awakening" and "Patterns," both which explore now-familiar (and wonderful) Jamal territory of alternating mood, tempo, rhythm and a delicious sense of spacing. Those familiar with Jamal’s famed live recordings of the 50s (at the Pershing and the Spotlight clubs) and the recently-issued gems on Atlantic and Verve (Live in Paris '92, The Essence and the newly-issued Big Byrd) will most heartily devour this beautiful music. Highly recommended.

Ahmad Jamal continued recording well into the previous decade, waxing a number of elegant late-period discs for the European Jazz Village label. One of those final studio recordings, the mostly solo Ballades (2019), even features one last swing through “Poinciana.” Ahmad Jamal owns it.

As I post this, I am listening again to Pittsburgh, the 1989 album Ahmad Jamal dedicated to the memory of his mother and his “beloved Pittsburgh.” It’s an exceptionally personal and heartfelt album – with an orchestra arranged by the great Richard Evans – that connects with me, my mother and my Pittsburgh heritage.

I am still here. So is Ahmad Jamal.


Shimon Israel said...

I first heard Ahmad Jamal in 1971, in Durban, South Africa, in my first year of college. A new friend played his "Live at the Alhambra" album for me and I was hooked for life. In that country at that time, his albums were not too available, so finding his "Pershing" and Argo label recordings, plus the new Emerald City sessions has been a complete thrill.

Doug, thanks for your tribute and summary of Ahmad Jamal's repertoire. He was said to be very influential, yet he's not nearly as famous as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. It seems to me that suits his personality just fine.

Anonymous said...

Great response Mr Israel. I concur totally. Regards. Your new friend