May 19, 2024
Ahmad Jamal
Then and Now – DVD
Eugene Holley, Jr.

Ever since he burst on the scene in Chicago when he formed his first trio in 1951, the Pittsburgh-born, 74 year-old pianist/bandleader Ahmad Jamal has, in Duke Ellington’s terms been, “beyond category.” His spare and surprising piano style — once described as “syncopated silence” — is an incredible amalgam of Errol Garner, Nat King Cole, Bud Powell, and Franz Liszt; His small ensemble arrangements are orchestrally oriented, and his versions of standards became the definitive way to play them. His influence is not limited to piano players, from Ramsey Lewis, and Keith Jarrett to Eric Reed, but to all musicians. Miles Davis, for example, was heavily influenced by Jamal and recorded several songs associated with him, including “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” and “A Gal in Calico.” The most direct evidence of Jamal’s influence on Davis can be heard on his Latin-tinged original composition “New Rumba,” and his elegant “Medley,” which included “I Don’t Wanna be Kissed,” from the newly reissued 1955 Argo recording Chamber Music of the New Jazz (Verve), with bassist Israel Crosby and guitarist Ray Crawford — who’s percussive plucking of the guitar frets produced an infectious conga effect — were transcribed, note-for-note by arranger Gil Evans on Miles Davis’s 1957 big band recording Miles Ahead.

Chamber Music of the New Jazz was produced by Dave Usher, a Detroit businessman who Ahmad Jamalalso worked with Dizzy Gillespie. It was the last recording to feature Jamal in his drumless trio format. In 1958 Jamal formed a new trio with Crosby and the legendary New Orleans drummer Vernel Fournier. That unit recorded Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me, a popular LP, which stayed at the top of the charts for an astounding 108 weeks, and featured Jamal’s famous interpretation of “Poinciana,” which was sampled by the rapper KRS-ONE and showcased in Clint Eastwood’s movie, The Bridges of Madison County. From the ’60s to the ’90s, Jamal released a number of multifaceted recordings including Extensions, Digital Works, The Essence, Parts I-III, and Olympia 2000.

Compare Jamal’s rendition of “Spring is Here” from Chamber Music of the New Jazz with an updated version of the song on his new DVD, Live in Baalbeck (Dreyfus) featuring long-time band mates bassist James Cammack and another New Orleans drummer Idris Muhammad, and you’ll hear an amazing evolution of his pianistic prowess and melodic conception. Shot over a two-day period in a beautiful red-hued backdrop in the ancient Phoenician/Roman temple in Lebanon, which was built in 100 B.C., the DVD features concert footage, rehearsals, and concert interviews.

Anchored by Muhammads’s peppery, Crescent City cadences and Cammack’s buoyant, rock-steady basslines, Jamal performs several standards, including “Young and Foolish,” and his signature crowd-pleaser “Poinciana.” Early in his career, Jamal’s band book consisted of 80% standards and 20% original compositions. Today, that percentage has reversed. Jamal’s complex works on the DVD range from the Monkish, avant-garde leaning, angular rhythms of “Topsy Turvy” and “Devil’s in my Den,” to the Ravelian impressionism of “Acorn” and the anthemic aura of “The Aftermath.” They all display his astonishing mastery European and American classical music Jamal learned in his hometown. Four years after Jamal started playing piano at the age of three, he studied the European tradition with the famed Mary Cardwell Dawson, the first black women to run an opera company, and with James Miller, an accomplished pianist and organist. By the time he was 14 he was a professional musician. When he graduated from Westinghouse High School, he went on the road with bandleader George Hudson and with the R&B group, The Caldwells before he made a name for himself in Chicago.

In May, 2005 Ahmad Jamal turns 75. Very few musicians in any idiom have been as consistent, or as compelling as him.