Ahmad Jamal's "Poinciana" Turns 50 Today

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

January 16, 2008 · 1 comment


Keith Jarrett: Poinciana

Whatever Keith Jarrett’s trio touches turns to gold. Even so, its 1999 recording of “Poinciana” from Paris shines brighter than most. It’s impossible to hear “Poinciana” without thinking of Ahmad Jamal, the pianist it is most often linked with, and Jarrrett’s trio wisely doesn’t try to disguise the association. Jack DeJohnette’s thoughtful, spacious percussion pattern immediately recalls the version Jamal did on tour in 1958. But a couple of minutes in, the moaning begins, and we are reminded that Jarrett is sitting on the bench. He excels at personalizing these upbeat numbers, and with “Poinciana” he is glorious, exploring all the nooks and crannies we never knew existed in the tune. His view of “Poinciana”’s possibilities is more expansive than Jamal’s, and so it grows in his hands.

October 26, 2007 · 0 comments


Ahmad Jamal: Poinciana (1958)

Written by Nat Simon and Buddy Bernier, “Poinciana” ranks among the loveliest upbeat numbers in the jazz canon. Pianist Ahmad Jamal popularized it, and it is perfect for Jamal’s spare, pensive style. It appears midway through the first disc of the two-CD set “Cross Country Tour,” but it actually closed his first set at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago and surely sent the crowd floating out of the room. All three musicians give the tune plenty of bounce and plenty of space. Vernel Fournier barely taps the drums, and Israel Crosby skips down the neck of the bass like a child running home from school. Jamal, for his part, gently massages the keys, drawing prettiness out. Just when you think he’s going to conclude a thought, he doesn’t, and his reticence makes it all the lovelier.

October 24, 2007 · 0 comments


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