Even in his 80s and with more than 50 albums in his catalog, a new disc from Pittsburgh native Ahmad Jamal is still something to look forward to. The pianist has the creative energy of a man half his age and the intelligence to put that energy to good use. Blue Moon, his exceptional 2012 release, was nominated for a Grammy and now with his follow-up album, Saturday Morning, another nomination may well be in the cards. Over and over again, Ahmad Jamal has demonstrated that he is an artist to be reckoned with.
Working with his quartet—Reginald Veal on double bass, Herlin Riley on drums, and percussionist Manolo Badrena—Jamal drives through 11 tunes, seven of which are original compositions emphasizing his trademark rhythmic juxtapositions and harmonies. It is vintage material. Whether Caribbean-laced and Latin-flavored or funky, it is classic.
There are two versions of “Saturday Morning,” the title song, a 10-minute extravaganza based on a poem by Catherine Valloon-Berry (quoted in both French and English in a booklet included with the album), and a shorter version to close the set. The long take often seems like a dialogue between the pianist’s two hands, one hand repeating a theme to represent the poem’s refrain, “Life is simple/Why complicate it?” The other hand develops the thematic material with gusto. The piece makes for some really interesting listening.
Of the other original compositions, “Silver” honors jazz great Horace Silver and “Firefly” is an abridged version of a song previously recorded back in 1982 under the title “American Classical Music.” The ballad “Edith’s Cake,” “Back to the Future,” and “The Line” make up the menu of Jamal pieces. They all show the classical influences on his jazz aesthetic.
Added to these are a brilliant version of Duke Ellington’s “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good” spiced with a chorus of Ellington quotations built in, and a sensitive exploration of the ballad, “I’ll Always Be With You.” Both are album highlights. A remix of “One,” written for Jamal by Sigidi Abdallah, spotlights all members of the ensemble. A gorgeous version of the standard ”I’m in the Mood for Love” completes the album. It is as lush as any piece of 19th century Romantic piano music.
Ahmed Jamal is one of the great jazz pianists, but he is the kind of talented pianist who can play anything. No question, if he wanted he could have been one of the great classical pianists. It is jazz lovers’ luck that he used jazz to make his mark. It also our luck that even in his 80s, the man is still able to put out a piece of work like Saturday Morning.