Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Still Wide Awake

When listening to Ahmad Jamal one becomes acutely aware that a piano has eighty-eight keys.  While lesser players are content to twinkle pleasantly among stars, Jamal plunges freely into the depths of the lower octaves.  His characteristic approach to jazz - or American classical music, as he prefers - is singular, both staccato and richly resonant. Canonball Adderley declared, "He plays within his style but he treats each composition as a separate entity, not just as a vehicle for clichés.  See, he treats each composition as something to be explored according to his style."  And Miles Davis remarked, "All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal….He knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement."  Jamal is an imposing technician and a robust leader, but he also knows when to restrain and let the rhythm swing.  His playing is often challenging but never abrasive or impenetrable.

The album Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me is his best known album, readily available for cheap in most second-hand record stores, but his best album is The Awakening.  I caught wind of this 1970 Impulse release through a friend who always knows what's up.  I bought the CD, fell in love with the music and began the long hunt for an original press.  Copies of The Awakening infrequently surface in Toronto, not because they're rare but because the album is a keeper.  I've seen it only once in a store, priced at twice its online value.  So after numerous defeating years scouring local bins, I capitulated and purchased it through eBay.

The record contains several original compositions, of which "I Love Music" is arguably the pièce de résistance with Jamal's plaintive soloing and the emotionally wrenching change just when the hushed rhythm section joins him.  That one moment makes the whole album for me. (Unfortunately, the track isn't on Youtube).  As a lagniappe, Jamal also covers two of my favourite compositions, Herbie Hancock's "Dophin Dance" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova standard, "Wave."  The latter of which Jamal practically reinvents.

"The Awakening"

"Dolphin Dance"


Unlike many of his contemporaries, Jamal never fell prey to drug addiction or artistic burnout.  His devout Islamic faith continues to provide inner peace, spry longevity and creative inspiration.  At eighty-two, he's still performing and composing.  In reviewing a 2010 concert at the Lincoln Centre, the New York Times critic Ben Ratliff assured readers that Jamal still had it when he reported, "The feeling — as with Miles Davis as with Prince — is of a bandleader’s constant, watchful manipulation, tension and release for maximum thrills."  Ratliff's praise was echoed last year when Jamal's Blue Moon: The New York Sessions made runner-up in Downbeat Magazine's best of 2012.  This newest album contains both covers and three original pieces: "Autumn Rain," "I Remember Italy," and my pick "Morning Mist," which has a nice Strata-East feel to it.  (Again, not on Youtube).  The title track, as you may have guessed, is a revamp of the Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart wartime standard.  But don't expect Jamal's version to sound anything like the renditions by Billie Holiday, Mel Torme or Elvis Presley.  It's near ten minutes long.  It's got a samba rhythm section that would make Risco Connection blush.  And it works

Promo Video for Blue Moon


"Autumn Rain"

"Blue Moon"

Illustration credit: Ian Johnson/White Walls

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