THE DOZENS: ERIC REED SELECTS 12 ESSENTIAL AHMAD JAMAL TRACKS by Ted Panken (editor)



                 Ahmad Jamal, by Suzanne Cerny

Editor’s Note: “Ahmad is to the piano trio what Thomas Edison was to electricity,” says Eric Reed, referring to the fact that, since his very first recordings in 1951, Ahmad Jamal’s investigations into the sonic potentials of the piano trio, with and without the drum, have served as a sort of — to expand Reed’s metaphor — gold standard for the idiom. It’s hard to overstate this artist’s influence on the sound of the post-bop piano mainstream. Miles Davis, Jamal’s most famous acolyte, assigned homework on appropriate rhythm section behavior to Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones by having them attend performances by the Three Strings, Jamal’s trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and his subsequent trio with Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier.


McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller and Bill Charlap are among the pianists who cite Jamal as a seminal influence, and at early ’90s sessions at Bradley’s, the iconic New York piano saloon, young talent like Cyrus Chestnut, Benny Green, Stephen Scott, Jacky Terrasson, and, yes, Reed, enthusiastically experimented with Jamallian dynamics and orchestrative strategies.

Paradoxically—or perhaps typically—Jamal objects to using “trio” as a descriptive for his sound. “It’s limiting as to what I do,” he told me several years ago. “I like to refer to my ‘small ensemble’ or my ‘large ensemble.’ Basically, I’m a writer and an orchestrator. I like big bands. I listen to Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Count Basie. I’ve always been a fan of 80 pieces, or 16 pieces; I once wrote for 22 voices. I’m not saying I can do it—I never acquired the skill—but I’ve always been a fan of orchestrations, Ravel and Johnny Mandel, all the things that speak of getting incredible sounds out of an orchestra. I’ve had an orchestra going on in my mind daily for all my life.”



        Pianist Eric Reed

As Jamal noted, such orchestral sounds were de rigueur during Jamal’s formative years in Depression Era Pittsburgh.“I was shaped by the big band era, by the Gillespie–Parker era, and by the electronic age or whatever we call it, and I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance,” Jamal said. “I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just interpret as best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Ted Panken


Ahmad Jamal: But Not for Me

Track

But Not For Me

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing (Telstar TSD3604 )

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), Israel Crosby (bass), Vernel Fournier (drums).

Composed by George & Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: Chicago, January 16-17, 1958

Albumcoverahmadjamalliveatpershing

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

One of the slickest things about this arrangement of “But Not For Me” is that it defines Ahmad Jamal’s subtleties. In the trio, each guy is doing something very specific, but you don’t think you’re listening to an arrangement—you’re just enjoying the ride. When Ahmad Jamal improvises on a form, he’s constantly playing over the barline—he’s not strictly defining the top and end of a form, but completely easing across it musically, making for an entity versus a series of choruses. You don’t think about keys or tempos or modulations or time signatures or anything like that. Another slick thing about the piece is that super-hip modulation at the top of the last chorus, where he slides right from C-major (his favorite key) into F-major. For years, I didn’t even realize that he had modulated.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: Autumn Leaves

Track

Autumn Leaves

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal (Chess CHD31266 )

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), Israel Crosby (bass), Vernel Fournier (drums).

Composed by Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert

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Recorded: Washington, D.C., September 5-6, 1958

Albumcoverahmadjamalportfolio

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

It takes a special kind of artist to be able to take hackneyed songs and make them his own, but in fact, that’s what Ahmad Jamal does. He takes the chords and the melody—then deconstructs and interjects all his own ideas. I tried to play this arrangement with a bunch of different guys, and it never really came off. Obviously, I didn’t have Israel and Vernel, but part of the problem is that so many bassists and drummers in particular, who claim to be so into the Ahmad Jamal Trio, miss the very subtle elements that make the arrangement work. The fact is, most cats get bored playing arrangements. But Ahmad knew that arrangements were the way to go, at least for his conception, because it kept the audience drawn in to what he was doing.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: Autumn in New York

Track

Autumn in New York

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal (Chess CHD31266)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), Israel Crosby (bass), Vernel Fournier (drums).

Composed by Vernon Duke

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Recorded: Washington, D.C., September 5-6, 1958

Albumcoverahmadjamalportfolio

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Ahmad Jamal utilizes so many devices—modulations, space, vamps, intros, interludes, shout choruses, tempo shifts, musical quotes, meter and groove shifts, exotic feels, the element of surprise. These aren’t devices that he introduced to jazz (you can hear modulations and interludes in Jelly Roll Morton’s music, and Ahmad took cues from his mentors, Art Tatum, Nat Cole and Erroll Garner), but Ahmad Jamal synthesized them better than most. This arrangement is so funky. He plays the intro and, as with a lot of things that Ahmad plays, he gives no hint or foreshadowing of what’s to come. Unless you’ve heard the arrangement before, you have no idea what he’s getting ready to do. He’s my favorite ballad player. His approach to interpreting melody is unique and individual, not like most of the recorded ballads that you’ll hear on those Blue Note or Prestige recordings, where the cats play the melody, then solo, and then you take it out. Every time Ahmad Jamal plays or records a song, he takes you on a fantastic journey.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: I'll Never Stop Loving You

Track

I’ll Never Stop Loving You

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Happy Moods (Argo 662)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), Israel Crosby (bass), Vernel Fournier (drums).

Composed by Nicholas Brodzsky and Sammy Cahn

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Recorded: Chicago, January 20-21, 1960

Albumcoverahmadjamalhappymoods

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

On the intro of “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” it sounds like Ahmad Jamal pulled out a third hand. One of my conflicts with a lot of Ahmad Jamal’s earlier recordings is that, in my opinion, they weren’t recorded very well—the engineering was not to my satisfaction and I thought the piano was inferior. But Ahmad Jamal completely killed that lion in terms of trying to fight with an instrument. He plays the piano with such perfect command and his musical conception was so clear that it wouldn’t have made a difference if he were playing on a toy piano.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: Buenos Aires

Track

Buenos Aires

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Macanudo (Argo 712)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), George Duvivier (bass), Osie Johnson (drums),

and the Richard Evans Orchestra

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Recorded: New York, December 20-21, 1962

Albumcoverahmadjamalmacanudo

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

This was recorded after Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier went over to George Shearing, and it’s clear that Ahmad Jamal had no problems regrouping after Israel’s and Vernel’s defection. I think it was a brilliant move by Ahmad to have his next recording be a huge departure from the trio format. This hearkens back to Ahmad Jamal’s days with the George Hudson Orchestra in the 1940s. He’d always claimed to be uncomfortable in an orchestra setting, but this totally disproves that—or he just got better at playing with orchestras. It seems as though he made a more conscious effort to play in the time, to be more appropriate with the heavy Latin theme of the date, and he’s just so supremely bad! It’s obscure, but one of my favorite Ahmad Jamal recordings.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: Allison

Track

Allison

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Heat Wave (Cadet LPS 777)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), Jamil Sulieman Nasser (bass), Frank Gant (drums).

Recorded: Washington, D.C., February 17-18, 1966

Albumcoverahmadjamalheatwave

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

I’m sure people would try to compare Jamil and Frank to the earlier group with Vernel and Israel, but with Ahmad Jamal as the common denominator, there’s obviously some consistency. “Allison” shows an example of how Ahmad redefines the art of soloing by the way he restated phrases. He would pick a phrase, or a lick, if you will, and keep placing that lick throughout different portions of the piece. Sometimes he wouldn’t even play single-note lines, but just vamp on some chordal motifs. This kind of thing makes him not just a musician’s musician, because of his tremendous facility, but also a people’s musician. He was tapping into the layman’s need and desire for something memorable by saying, ‘Hey, this is still the piece we’re playing,’ whether by quoting the melody outright or just hinting at it.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: Misty

Track

Misty

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Heat Wave (Cadet, LPS 777)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), Jamil Sulieman Nasser (bass), Frank Gant (drums).

Composed by Erroll Garner

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Recorded: Washington, D.C., February 17-18, 1966

Albumcoverahmadjamalheatwave

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

“Misty” is a song that I’ve come to hate, but when I heard this version... Of course, this was written by his mentor, so I don’t doubt that there was a special little vibe when he recorded the piece. Ahmad’s fortitude, his cockiness to say, “You know what? I’m going to put a really funky contemporary groove on this.” Ahmad Jamal does not shy away from contemporary sounds. Whatever is happening at the time, he’ll check it out and figure out some way to personalize it. He didn’t get stuck in time because of the success of “Poinciana”; in fact, I’d say it compelled him to continue to forge ahead through musical territory.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: Close Enough for Love

Track

Close Enough For Love

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

American Classical Music (Shubra, SHU 101)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), Payton Crossley (drums),

David “Sabu” Adeyola (bass)

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Composed by Johnny Mandel and Paul Williams

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Recorded: San Francisco, July 1982

Albumcoverahmadjamalacm

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

The 1970s was a turbulent time for a lot of so-called “straight-ahead” jazz musicians, although I’d hardly call Ahmad Jamal a straight-ahead jazz musician because he’s more than that. But in the years before this, he’d done a number of electric and pop-ish records like Jamalca and Intervals. Now, on Live at Bubba's (Who's Who WWLP21021), which he did with the same rhythm section in about 1980, he seemed to have gone back to 1961 to regroup, and then traverse from there. But with “Close Enough for Love,” it seems that he was on to the next phase of his artistry. We get to hear him on a superior instrument, and you get an even deeper sense of his romanticism—you hear the fullness and robustness of his sound. Ahmad Jamal is a two-handed piano player. He plays the whole piano. He’ll use that absolutely lowest A on the Steinway, or the extra octave down if he’s on the Bosendorfer, and he’ll use that highest C. He recognizes that you get a different tonality and timbre if you press the pedal all the way down or halfway down, that each octave on the piano carries its own character—if you play an octave from middle-C up, it will sing a certain way; if you play two octaves down, and you’re not careful, it’s going to become real muddy. His understanding of weight, tone, touch and sensitivity come out on here. This record, which was recorded live at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, could also be called The Real Ahmad Jamal, because you’re truly hearing his full capabilities.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: Wave (1985)

Track

Wave

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Digital Works (WEA/Atlantic (G)781258)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), Herlin Riley (drums),

Larry Ball (electric bass), Iraj Lashkary (percussion)

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Composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim

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Recorded: Dallas, Texas, August 1985

Albumcoverahmadjamaldigitalworks

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Ahmad Jamal understood popular music, he understood commercialism, but, to me, he didn’t compromise. All of his artistic and musical decisions were personal and deliberate choices. There were some similarities between his work during this period and the so-called “smooth jazz” or “instrumental R&B,” or whatever you want to call it. But even though it was in a similar instrumental setting, what Ahmad Jamal was doing was too intense and complex to be called “smooth jazz.”

On “Wave” he revives the same basic arrangement from his version on The Awakening [Impulse!] in 1970. He plays the bassline, then breaks it up with this completely divergent rhythmic tangent, comes back to the line, and then sets up the song. There’s that element of surprise. A lot of young musicians today compose songs with a little piano-bass ostinato line to start off, which usually winds up being the most interesting part of the song. Most of them don’t know it, but they’re following Ahmad Jamal’s popularization of that device. He will stay on the vamp of a song for 10 minutes, and then play the actual song itself very briefly. For him, the form doesn’t make a difference. He might play an “A” section 20 times before going to the bridge, but you didn’t get tired of it. Then once he got to the bridge it was this huge release. His ability to spontaneously orchestrate is absolutely incredible. His genius has no limits.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: Crystal

Track

Crystal

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Crystal (WEA/Atlantic (G)781793)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano),

James Cammack (bass). David Bowle (drums), Willie White (percussion)

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Composed by Ahmad Jamal

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Recorded: Warren, Rhode Island, 1987

Albumcoverahmadjamalcrystal

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

I used to believe that musicians play differently on standards than they do on their own pieces, but I’m not entirely convinced of that notion. Thelonious Monk plays “Sweet and Lovely” and his own “Ruby, My Dear” exactly the same—it’s Monk through and through. However, Ahmad Jamal wrote this particular piece based on his improvisations (somebody once used a word called “comprovisation,” meaning combining composition and improvisation), and it’s a perfect vehicle for him. It’s almost like a rondo, and it taps into his romanticism and lyricism. His own compositions don’t simply follow the AABA format. The intros aren’t just something used to introduce the song. Ahmad Jamal takes every element of the song seriously.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: Piano Solo #11

Track

Piano Solo #11

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Crystal (WEA/Atlantic (G)781793)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano).

Composed by Ahmad Jamal

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Recorded: Warren, Rhode Island, , 1987

Albumcoverahmadjamalcrystal

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

I am completely blown away by how huge Ahmad Jamal’s musical world actually is. He is able to totally defy styles, bags and genres. He can play absolutely anything that comes to his mind. Art Tatum was that kind of piano player. Earl Hines. Keith Jarrett. As a composition, this piece seems to synthesize this musical world.

Reviewer: Eric Reed


Ahmad Jamal: Dance to the Lady

Track

Dance To The Lady

Artist

Ahmad Jamal (piano)

CD

Chicago Revisited: Live at Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase (Telarc 83327)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), John Heard (bass),

Yoron Israel (drums)

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Composed by John Handy

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Recorded: Chicago, November 13-14, 1992

Albumcoverahmadjamalchicagorevisited

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

This rendering starts with just piano and drums, which Ahmad doesn’t do often, even live, but when he does, it really explodes. Now, this piece is a very tender piece, not really a ballad, but more or less a bright waltz. Yoron Israel plays lightly behind him, real loose and kind of open. One thing that stands out is that when Ahmad Jamal plays waltz time, he almost keeps the feeling of the old-style waltz. In a lot of ways, he’s a traditionalist. You don’t hear him play things in 3/4 like, say, Cannonball Adderley, with the real heavy walking basslines, almost like a gospel blues thing. That wasn’t really Ahmad’s thing. His approach to 3/4 is almost childlike. His sound and conception is distinctively African-American in terms of not containing an overabundance of European influence, like when you listen to Bill Evans or George Russell or someone like that.

Ahmad Jamal told me that for a disciplinarian, there are no rewards, only consequences. People like Ahmad, Herbie Nichols, Horace Silver and John Lewis were very straight-laced guys, who didn’t get caught up in the whole clichéd jazz scene of succumbing to negative influences. They were quirky, but not in the negative sense. Their minds were always clear, so they were consistent in what they wrote and in their recorded and performance output. This also took their music outside of categories. You could call Horace Silver a hard-bop musician, but only in the sense that it’s a style that he helped to define. You could call John Lewis a bebop jazz pianist, but it wouldn’t be accurate to limit him to one style.

On “Dance for The Lady,” I’m blown away by how one person can simultaneously have so much power and so much sensitivity. McCoy Tyner also has that. McCoy and Ahmad are very similar piano players, and I would like to believe that during the mid-1960s, when McCoy Tyner’s thing was really beginning to unfold with the John Coltrane Quartet, it had a tremendous impact on Ahmad. I don’t think that’s cheeky or disrespectful to say, even though Ahmad Jamal is McCoy’s senior. What that says is that Ahmad Jamal is open to what’s in the air; that he knows what’s going on at all times. He recorded Chick Corea’s “Tones For Joan’s Bones.” He recorded Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” He recorded a Monty Alexander piece, “You Can See.” He’s done Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusher Man” or “Theme From M.A.S.H.” So Ahmad Jamal not only honors the masters, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Nat Cole, but also respects the newer generation, and that’s what has allowed him to stay so fresh.

Reviewer: Eric Reed



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