Ahmad Jamal is one of those figures in jazz – which he prefers to call “American Classical Music” – who is simultaneously revered and ignored. After receiving a multifaceted music education in Pittsburgh in the ‘40s, he hit the scene in the early ‘50s, playing extended gigs in Chicago and New York. He achieved a rare measure of popularity in 1958 with his album Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me.
Jamal’s style was different than most. While other jazz pianists emphasized flashy pyrotechnics and dazzling runs, Jamal was noted for his use of space, subtle dynamic shifts, and tempo changes. This style was not totally appreciated by some jazz critics – one Downbeat critic derided it as “cocktail piano” music. In fairness, though, the enormous impact he was to have wasn’t apparent back then. Over time, his style has had a great influence on many pianists, including McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. Jamal and trumpeter Miles Davis, in particular, had a mutual admiration society.
Through the decades (now at age 83), Jamal has nurtured his very unique sound, while refining it selectively. He has expanded his stylistic repertoire, taking in influences from electronic, fusion, and pop music. His playing has become a bit more percussive over the years, and he showcases more of his own compositions.
Saturday Morning, released last month, features his current group, which includes drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Reginald Veal, and percussionist Manolo Badrena. Some of Jamal’s own compositions (“Firefly” and “Back To The Future“) present simple themes that are stepping stones for extended improvisations. “Silver,” a tribute to Horace Silver, has a Latin beat and simple, catchy licks characteristic of that composer. “Saturday Morning“ is a relaxed, medium-tempo romp with a recurring two-note riff and a rhythm that gives a hint of Motown. Inventive percussion from Badrena helps set a mood reminiscent of a leisurely walk in a neighborhood.
Jamal has a gorgeous ballad style, and three are represented here: “I’ll Always Be With You,” “I’m In The Mood For Love,” and Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).” He is a proponent of the old Ben Webster theory of recalling the lyrics of a song while playing, and it shows in his musical vocabulary.
To be clear, Jamal is a virtuoso in terms of his technique – he just chooses how and when to put that virtuosity on display. He channels influences from a variety of sources. When appropriate, he’ll sound like McCoy Tyner and create an open sound for brief phrases. At other times, he’ll channel Erroll Garner. And some types of phrasing seem to be uniquely his. The famous intro to “Take The ‘A’ Train” is scattered though “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).” Rich melodic interludes are interspersed with more dissonant, discordant breaks. And underlying it all, there is the sense that each phrase has a purpose and a direction.
Ahmad Jamal has continued to hone his craft for many decades. One can appreciate the style (which I do), or one can prefer another. But there is no doubt about the type of musical statement that he is making with Saturday Morning.