Fifty years ago today, Ahmad Jamal mesmerized an audience at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago with his remarkable version of the song “Poinciana.” Jamal had been performing this piece for several years, but on January 16, 1958 recording equipment had been set up in the club. The resulting record took the jazz world by storm. “Poinciana” became a surprise hit, and stayed on the charts for more than two years – a stunning achievement for any recording, but unheard of for a piano trio side.
The recording deserved its extraordinary success. Jamal had a fresh conception of the jazz keyboard that stood out from the pack in 1958, and still sounds invigorating in 2008. His playing revolutionized the use of space and time in jazz; Jamal knew when to hold back and when to go for the big effect, and he took chances on both extremes. He is usually (and rightly) praised for the subtlety of his playing, but Jamal also deserves recognition for his ability to hit the home run, his knack for pulling out some grand, dramatic effect at just the right moment in a performance.
Rumors tell how even the sturdiest concert pianos require the care and attention of tuners and technicians after he has given them a workout – so much for the “delicate” attack of Ahmad Jamal! Keyboardists of all stripes could learn much by studying his body of work, if only to appreciate how to use the full dynamic and expressive range of the instrument. (One person who did benefit from Jamal's example was trumpeter Miles Davis, who borrowed songs from the pianist's repertoire, and understood perhaps better than anyone how Jamal got so much firepower from so few notes.)
Of course, Jamal was not the only party responsible for the hypnotic and breathing rhythms on “Poinciana.” Drummer Vernel Fournier and bassist Israel Crosby perfectly matched and supported every move the pianist made. To this day, I have never heard a rhythm section who surpassed this team for playing with quiet intensity, for bringing down the volume and playing fewer notes, but without sacrificing the energy level of the song. (If you need proof, just check out this exemplary version of “Darn That Dream” from 1959).
The live recording at the Pershing Lounge would change Jamal's career, and from this moment on, he would own “Poinciana." But he did not introduce it into the jazz repertoire. Glenn Miller holds that distinction – having performed and recorded the song on many occasions, going back to the 1930s. Benny Carter had a mini-hit with the song in 1943, when it served as the flip side for his memorable recording “Hurry, Hurry.” During the 1940s, the song also showed up in the repertoires of Duke Ellington, George Shearing, Erroll Garner, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James and Jack Teagarden. Charlie Parker quotes “Poinciana in a recording of “Ornithology” from 1950. Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan recorded it in 1953. So this song was no undiscovered gem, just waiting to be plucked by Ahmad Jamal – it was out there and frequently covered by the greater and lesser talents of the jazz world.
But Jamal made all these versions into mere footnotes to his classic performance. He employs a syncopated vamp to set up the melody, and this may have been the hook that turned the song into a hit. Not many jazz songs have become charted singles, but most of the ones earning this distinction have employed vamps – for example “Take Five,” “The Sidewinder,” “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and “Watermelon Man.” But vamps also can bore you to tears. To Jamal's credit, he puts a jolt of electricity into every phrase, into his every move at the keyboard.
Here is a video of of Jamal playing this same piece in 2005. As you can see, his arrangement has lost none of its magic. Jamal himself is so familiar with the piece that he starts playing even before he is seated at the instrument! (Don't tell Mr. Jamal, but I think that gets you expelled from Juilliard.) Is he in a rush? Not really. Jamal is clearly enjoying himself while performing his signature song, even after all these decades. Pay particular attention to the wide expressive range of this performance, which goes effortlessly from whispers to shouts, and brings the audience along for every twist and turn in the journey.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
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