Frequently cited as one of Miles Davis’ biggest inspirations, jazz pianist Amhad Jamal nonetheless flew slightly under the radar when compared to fellow legendary musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck. In this article we’ve rounded up some of his best albums for your listening pleasure.
Born Fritz Jones on July 2, 1930, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and taking up piano 7 years later, the pianist changed his name to Ahmad Jamal after converting to Islam in 1950.
While early influences were Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams and Earl Hines he was in his own music to follow a different path.
Like Erroll Garner, another early influence, he would spend much of his time working with a trio, yet his playing was based on a ‘less is more’ approach that eschewed torrent of notes in favour of a spacious lyricism.
Initially misunderstood, he was often derided as a mere cocktail pianist who playing was pleasant but devoid of substance. Despite this he was attracting some attention.
Popular with audiences, he was championed by critic Stanley Crouch who wrote about his control of the song by unique use of space and tempo.
It’s this minimalist and economical way of playing that Miles Davis found so captivating in Jamal’s music. So enamoured was Davis of the Ahmad Jamal Trio that he would frequently attend concerts by the pianist whenever possible and would often record songs played by Jamal only a few months after the pianist.
The albums recommended below do not just offer fine examples of the pianist’s work but do over a period of more than forty years and show how Jamal would constantly look to keep moving forward with his music.
At The Pershing – But Not For Me (1958)
This was Jamal’s first live recording and demonstrates that this was probably the best way to hear the pianist.
This is not the first album under the pianist’s leadership (he was a frequent visitor to the studio from 1951 onwards) but it the most significant in terms of showcasing his excellent trio, and in overall sales.
The trio with Israel Crosby on bass and drummer Vernal Fournier was a superb unit.
Both bass and drums filled a role that was much more than mere accompanist’s to Jamal’s playing but helped define the music on an equal footing.
Careful listening and the influence Jamal had on Miles Davis can be detected on the trumpeter’s rhythm section of Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.
All of the trio’s sets were recorded, a total of forty three tunes of which eight were selected by Jamal for release.
The music played is predominantly standards and of the titles on the originally released album, no less than four of them would be recorded by Miles and his quintet.
A further album was released a few later, At The Pershing Vol.2 from the same sessions in January 1958.
Once again, Miles could be heard playing of songs played by Jamal, ‘My Funny Valentine’ which would become a staple in the Davis band book, and ‘Billy Boy’ that Miles’s rhythm section would record for the album Milestones recorded in April 1958.
Our recommendation would be to hear the originally released album with tracks selected by Jamal first, primarily to hear the pianist’s astonishing reading of ‘Poinciana’ which was a big hit, helping to ensure the success of the album and making At The Pershing one of the bestselling jazz albums of the decade.
Cross Country Tour: 1958-1961
At the risk of ‘doubling up’, the Cross Country Tour: 1958-1961 is a set of live recordings from the classic line up with Crosby and Fournier, and of the 32 tracks over 2 CDs the first 14 are from the two At The Pershing volumes.
Despite this duplication the recommendation stands as with a further 18 tracks recorded in September 1958 and June 1961 from three further venues including the Spotlite Club in Washington D.C., Jamal’s own club The Alhambra in Chicago and the Black Hawk in San Francisco, and again these are a perfect example of a craftsman at work.
‘Old Devil Moon’ from the Spotlite Club in 1958 is as good as anything from the Pershing sessions and Israel Crosby is to the fore with a magnificent solo and accompaniment throughout.
From the Black Hawk in 1961 comes a medley of ‘I’ll Take Romance / My Funny Valentine’ in which Jamal doffs his hat to Miles and Bill Evans showing that he too has been touched by the Kind Of Blue album.
An excellent opportunity to follow the trio over a period of time and hear how the music develops.
The Awakening (1970)
Jumping forward nine years and a different bass and drums axis with Jamil Nasser and Frank Gant taking over the respective roles. Jamal himself is bringing a newfound assertiveness and even a hint of darkness to his music.
The opening title track composed by the pianist is a brooding piece that hovers between light and dark, with the contrast coming in the gently swinging sections that are occasionally allowed to break through.
The other original is ‘Patterns’ that again sacrifices a lightness of touch for a depth and strength to the music that it ultimately satisfying. Interesting to hear the pianist’s take on Herbie Hancock’s ‘Dolphin Dance’ with Jamal again refusing to relinquish an edge to his playing that in this instance holds down the composition.
Hancock’s lithe melodic line does not swim quite a freely as one might have thought would be the case, yet this is an intense reading that demands careful attention from the listener.
Just as intense, and as intensely rewarding is Oliver Nelson’s ‘Stolen Moments’.
Another of those compelling performances that the pianist is capable of dropping into a set at as if at a moment’s notice. All three musicians rise to the occasion in a truly marvellous trio performance.
I Remember Duke, Hoagy & Strayhorn (1994)
Although not adverse to writing his own material, Ahmad Jamal made his early reputation with his unusually fresh interpretation of jazz standards and compositions from the Great American Songbook.
It should therefore come as no surprise that somewhere along the way he would record a tribute album, how he treats the compositions though is a surprise, and a delightful one at that.
The majority of the set is given over to the work of Duke, however there is a lovely reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Skylark’ and Jamal’s piece ‘I Remember Hoagy’ is a dedication that contains some inventive playing.
Jamal’s acknowledgement to Billy Strayhorn in a stately rendition of ‘Chelsea Bridge’ taking the first half of the performance an intriguing solo piano exploration before being joined unobtrusively by bass and drums.
The pianist goes to town on ‘I Got It Bad’ with some wonderfully oblique phrasing and strains of ‘Take The ‘A’ Train’ that come drifting through.
‘In A Sentimental Mood’ is given a reading that is anything but sentimental with Jamal working his way across the chords with some magisterial results. The same level of concentration, although appropriately less intense, is applied to ‘Prelude To Kiss’ that Jamal is determined to examine thoroughly and concisely.
Little is known about the bass and drums axis of Ephriam Wolfolk and Arti Dixson, but they serve Jamal competently enough, and often the measure of their playing and good taste is knowing when to sit out. After all, this is Jamal’s gig, and he does not disappoint.
A L’Olympia (2000)
For this concert in Paris to mark Ahmad Jamal’s 70th birthday we get to hear the pianist in a different context, fronting a quartet with James Cammack on bass, drummer Idris Muhammad and tenor saxophonist George Coleman.
The company certainly suited Coleman as he is in magnificent form and is in danger of stealing the show. With one great solo after another the saxophonist is on fire and brings out the best in Jamal in a scintillating live performance.
What is remarkable here is the standard of invention by all throughout. I
f it is sometime easy to overlook the contribution of Cammack and Muhammad it’s simply because they are supplying exactly what is required of them by Jamal and Coleman, and this they do so with aplomb.
With a solid yet fluid foundation from bass and drums, pianist and saxophonist are able to let the music flow without inhibition.
Good too to hear Jamal stretch out on some familiar tunes; not restricting the quartet to performances of five minutes duration or less, the solos are allowed to develop organically allowing for a more in depth exploration.
Evident from the outset on a blisteringly intense ‘A Night Has A Thousand Eyes’, Coleman delivers an excellent solo straight out of the starting blocks only to be equalled by Jamal comping and solo that follows.
Taking a breather at a gentler tempo (or are they?) there is an extraordinary performance of ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’ with a tenor solo from Coleman that is simply jaw dropping, before the pianist treats the audience to an audacious introduction to ‘Autumn Leaves’.
Tenor and piano then juggle the with the theme before another beautifully judged solo from George Coleman that requires a little more than a simple accompaniment or commentary from drummer Muhammad who is up to the challenge and happy to oblige.
The quartet play out their part of the concert with a second ballad in ‘My Foolish Heart’ with Coleman and Jamal again showing their compatibility and understanding of each other’s playing, with the concert concluding with to pieces by Jamal, ‘Appreciation’ an ‘Aftermath’ for the trio.
This is not the playing of a musician at the end of a long and distinguished, but of one of the under-appreciated giants of the music is still looking to push his playing to the next level. A fine and essential modern jazz record.
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