Monday, May 12, 2008


At 77, Jamal Sounds Younger Than Ever
By WILL FRIEDWALD | May 9, 2008

If you think of a jazz performance as a meal, it makes you wonder why most musicians serve dessert before the entrĂ©e. Considering that most listeners enjoy hearing the melody more than any other part of a particular song, why does the tune so often rush by at the very beginning, like an afterthought — or, more precisely, a before-thought?

The pianist Ahmad Jamal, who is appearing this week at the Blue Note, and whose new album, “It’s Magic” (Dreyfus), will be released next month, has some interesting answers. If the melody is the dessert, then he chooses not to serve it in a distinctly defined course, but rather in small, tempting bites throughout the meal. Here’s some steak for you, and wait, just a taste of ice cream.

That’s the way Mr. Jamal, a 77-year-old Pittsburgh native, played “Wild Is the Wind” at the late show on Tuesday night (as on the new album). First, he begins with polyrhythmic background — part rhumba, part calypso — reinforced by the percussionist Manolo Badrena, who is armed with a Pan-American-African percussion kit that I’m glad I don’t have to get through customs. Mr. Jamal plays a bit of piano improvisation, then lays a little taste of the tune on us, then a brief bit of Idris Muhammad’s drums, then more melody, then some bass from James Cammack, and so on. As they play, the leader stands up and turns away from his piano, as if to project his star power onto his colleagues for their moments in the spotlight.

When he plays a standard, Mr. Jamal is brilliant at the old trick of delaying recognition of the melody, a simple enough move to heighten the drama. Before we’re certain that we’re hearing “Wild Is the Wind,” he takes a side trip through the “Sesame Street” theme song, rendering it in a way that would scare the feathers off of Big Bird. He goes to an even further extreme with “The Way You Look Tonight,” not allowing us to explicitly hear the melody until the coda — thus dishing out the dessert at the end of the dinner, where it belongs.

Mr. Jamal is such a crowd-pleaser — the critic Martin Williams once famously accused him of “playing the audience” rather than the piano — that it’s hard to imagine he spent the early part of his career known only to other musicians. Although he recorded as early as 1951 (tracks now available on “The Legendary Okeh & Epic Sessions”), his ideas were widely disseminated by Miles Davis long before Mr. Jamal was well-known outside of Chicago. Born Frederick Jones in 1930, Mr. Jamal was one of a legion of heavyweight jazz pianists to rise out of Pittsburgh. He assumed the name Ahmad Jamal (which means “highly praised beauty” in Arabic) as part of his conversion to Islam in the early 1950s.

Mr. Jamal’s ideas regarding the use of melody — his contrast between a simple, clearly delineated tune and complex, modern jazz chords, as well as between sound and silence, rhythm, and even repertoire — were the major influence on Davis’s classic quintet with John Coltrane in the late ’50s. The trumpeter not only employed Mr. Jamal’s concepts, but borrowed arrangements outright; “I Don’t Want To Be Kissed” and the pianist’s original “New Rhumba,” from Mr. Jamal’s “Chamber Music of the New Jazz,” were essentially transcribed into big-band format for “Miles Ahead” (1955).

Yet, ironically, by the time Mr. Jamal finally landed his breakthrough hit, “Poinciana,” in 1958, Davis was already on his way to something new, something cool, and something kind of blue. Coltrane also first heard “Pavanne” on one of Mr. Jamal’s albums, which inspired him to transmute that Morton Gould tune into his own classic composition “Impressions.”

But 50 years later, Mr. Jamal no longer sounds like he did on his recordings of that era; rather, he is a much more assertive player today. His dynamics, much like Count Basie’s, are wondrous to behold, making his Steinway live up to its full formal name, a pianoforte. He shows it’s possible to swing and bop with considerable energy without drowning the listener in a torrent of notes; his ballads, mostly rendered only with Mr. Cammack, are models of economy, particularly Arthur Schwartz’s “Then I’ll Be Tired of You.” Mr. Jamal establishes a serene mood, then disrupts his own tranquility with big, fortissimo distortions.

At the Blue Note, most of the faster numbers utilized Island-centric beats, whereas most of the slower tunes were classic ballads. Some of Mr. Jamal’s own tunes, such as the clave-driven “Fitnah” which closed the late set on Tuesday (as well as the album), are pure rhythm and special effects without much of a tune, but he can also write a gorgeous melody. “Whisperings” is lightly reminiscent of Jimmy Rowles’s “The Peacocks” (and opens with a quote from “Lucky To Be Me”), but is a strong original melody that was heard with a worthy lyric on the 2003 album “In Search Of.” If he hadn’t introduced it as an original, one might have mistaken it for a work by one of the Old Masters.

Mr. Jamal is such a vital and contemporary player that, even at 77, he seems to have come after, rather than before, nearly everyone playing the piano today.

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