a column by
Ahmad Jamal Chuck Stewart©2010
Ahmad Jamal celebrated his 80th birthday on July 2nd, but given his stature in the 1950s, it’s easy to imagine that he might be older. In that long career, he seems to have moved in and out of the spotlight, or between different spotlights. He’s been a popular jazz artist, then an artist too popular to be a jazz artist. Whatever his critical reception, he’s usually recorded, though for long stretches making frankly commercial dates or revisiting his previous glories.
I’ll confess to knowing too little about Jamal’s music for too long. I grew up on the standard critical judgement of the 1960s that he was a cocktail lounge pianist, albeit a superior one, and somehow outside the fold. Later when I would hear him I would be surprised by the forcefulness—the 1996 recording The Essence Part 1, for instance. I was much impressed when I heard him live about a decade ago with a band that included the steel drummer Othello Molineaux. It was rich, rhythmically complex, explosive music. A few years ago I started listening regularly to a 1955 recording called The Chamber Music of the New Jazz (Argo 602, reissued in 2004 by Verve), at first for the guitarist Ray Crawford, but soon because I liked almost everything about it. Mosaic has just released The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions 1956-62 (Mosaic MD9-246), nine CDs that chronicle his finest trio.
Jamal had a way of picking tunes that was special; an even more remarkable way of arranging them; and a way of performing them with his trio that supplied an absolutely distinctive style. For all the stylization, Jamal’s arrangements—reharmonizing, adding vamps and ostinatos, and counterrhythms-- has virtually defined the way they’ve been played by other musicians since, most notably Miles Davis, whose performances have been more influential than Jamal’s own. Several of Jamal’s first crucial performances can be found on The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings (Sony), the singles that he recorded between 1951 and 1955 and which originally document some of his key compositions and arrangements—“Ahmad’s Blues,” “ Aki and Ukthay,” “Poinciana,” “Love for Sale” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Pavane.” These would become touchstones in Jamal’s performances and they’re all heard in more extended live versions in the Mosaic set.
The Okeh recordings and The Chamber Music of the New Jazz (originally recorded for the R & B label Parrot and excluded from the Mosaic set) feature a trio of piano, guitar and bass. Jamal was originally a member of a group called the Four Strings led by Pittsburgh violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. When Kennedy left the group it became the Three Strings and then the Ahmad Jamal Trio. When Jamal settled in Chicago in 1955, he changed the instrumentation to the more conventional piano, bass and drums. The first material here is the studio session for Count ‘Em 88 with Israel Crosby and Walter Perkins on drums (it includes an arrangement of “On Green Dolphin Street” that would become, in Miles Davis’s hands, the standard jazz approach to the tune). After that Perkins is replaced by Vernel Fournier, who with Crosby is present for the duration of the set.
The 1958 recording at the Pershing would, with its extraordinary sales, set a pattern for Jamal’s recordings. The bulk of this set—more than six of the nine CDs-- come from the trio’s live recordings—at the Pershing, at the Spotlight in Washington, D.C., at the Blackhawk in San Francisco and at Jamal’s AlHambra. This particular version of the Jamal trio is one of the great institutions of jazz, and it’s wonderful to hear in one place the recorded legacy of a group of musicians working continuously together for five years. The live versions of “Poinciana” stretch to eight and nine minutes, and they’re wonders of rhythmic complexity and interplay.
Jamal seems to have been committed to developing ideas and material over the long haul, and it’s apparent here in the studio recordings included. Apart from a few short trio sessions, the studio recordings here reunite Jamal with Joe Kennedy and Ray Crawford from the days of the Four Strings and the original trio. At the Penthouse, from 1959, has Jamal playing with a string section arranged and directed by Kennedy, while Listen to the Ahmad Jamal Quintet, from 1960, adds Kennedy and Crawford to the trio with Crosby and Fournier.
As is usual with Mosaic sets, Michael Cuscuna has done an exceptional job of tracking down music that has suffered some neglect through the years, as well as supplying numerous unreleased takes, including a beautiful version of “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” from the Spotlight recordings. The very rare Count ‘Em 88 had to come from a Japanese CD master that “seems to have been dubbed from an LP.” The notes by drummer Kenny Washington, who has played with Jamal, are excellent, including an extensive interview.
Listening at this historical remove, it’s impossible not to reflect on the extremes of reaction to Jamal’s work and the gaps between what critics and musicians and audiences have thought about it through the years. A key to the set and to Jamal’s reputation is At the Pershing: But Not for Me, one of the best-selling records in jazz history. Nadine Cohodas summarizes the critical reception when it first appeared:
It’s a critical view that still holds currency in some quarters. You can buy a download of Jamal’s 1955 recording of Morton Gould’s “Pavane” at jazz.com, but Alan Kurtz’s attached description includes the following:
Leonard Chess’s response to the original hostile review was to invite the writer to a viewing of the Chess account books, imagining popularity to be a refutation of criticism. It would seem harder to dismiss the views of musicians as estimable as Davis and Coltrane and the status Jamal has enjoyed with other musicians. The Jamal approach is submerged in jazz—it’s particularly close to the surface, though in certain moments of the Keith Jarrett trio, and the rhythm and vamp approach might find its strongest echoes in groups like the Bad Plus. Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson’s blog “Do the Math” is a musically literate and articulate journey into jazz history. Last year he interviewed Jarrett and some of their observations of Jamal’s work are striking. Speaking of his youth in Pennsylvania and his experience in record stores, Jarrett recalls:
Jarrett goes on to mention “the accents!...and the way that they dealt with space: That’s why Miles was so taken with them,” and Iverson wonders, “if people told you you sounded like Bill Evans because Bill, Ahmad, and yourself are all dedicated to voice-leading. There’s a common thread of avoiding stock harmony.” (Do the Math)
So there’s clearly a lot going on in Jamal’s music and it’s been overlooked with some regularity by critics. The more I listen to the nine CDs, the more it seems that Jamal is a strange vector through which much other jazz passes, and his interests are often strikingly original. While he’s a master of quiet dynamics and space, he’s also heir to a certain big band tradition and maybe the least likely one—Dizzy Gillespie’s late-forties band with its enthusiasm for Afro-Cuban rhythms and polyrhythms in general. It’s apparent here in the performances of “Woody ‘n’ You” and “Our Delight” and elsewhere the sudden interpolation of “Manteca.”
His use of block chords comes through Errol Garner, and Jamal sometimes deploys them with the force of a big band. If the role of the blues-based big bands was being reshaped in inner city bars by organ trios that could match a big band for volume and force, then Jamal too was reshaping the big band in a trio format, just doing it at a much lower volume level, but with all the rhythmic complexity, sectional chords, and melodic vigor. Much of his figuration—the sudden descending triplets of “Let’s Fall in Love,” for instance-- could be played by a big band.
Part of the Jamal style comes from creating a kind of transparency in the piano that lets bass and drum rhythm patterns come through clearly. He also builds material around tunes, adding introductions, ostinatos and vamps, so that conventional tunes become almost cubist, multi-dimensional works with different rhythmic and thematic materials layered over them, often in collision with the original. Tunes aren’t just reworked; they have identity crises, but these crises are often festive. It’s not hard to listen to such performances, but it’s often hard to articulate all that’s going on.
If you can trace the influence of Jamal on popular (and populist) jazz groups like Argo label-mate the Ramsey Lewis Trio, you might find far more of it in McCoy Tyner. Kenny Washington notes that another Chicago musician, trumpeter Ahmad Zahar was a close friend (Jamal’s tune Aki and Ukthay [Brother and Sister] is named for him and his wife) and that Andrew Hill played in Zahar’s band. I think there’s an apparent connection between Jamal’s music and Hill’s, particularly Black Fire, the first Blue Note recording, with the compositions marked by complex, contrasting sections and very strong ostinatos and vamps.
Much of the negative criticism of Jamal seems one dimensional, devoted to dismissing the surface (frankly pretty, even glittering) in his music. It’s a surface that can be conceived as an absence or a reflection of the original material, or a series of relatively innocuous gestures. It’s precisely music that responds to whatever you bring to it, and it’s programmed to respond well if you don’t bring it very much. The difference between Jamal’s work and music with little interest, is that Jamal’s has all kinds of depth and complexity as well.
I think that bland surface is a historical construct, one configured in the particular climate of America in the 1950s, and it’s linked to the persistent idea of the exotic and its relationship to race and even religion.
Jamal is an artist of the exotic, and somewhere there should be a detailed study of the impact of Islam in the jazz of the 1950s. It was a way of getting away from the dominant cultural religion, certainly, but also one that seemed to change the origin of the convert in a subtle way, rendering them somehow exotic. The movement would take in far more musicians than just those who changed their names, of course, but the impact on audiences might be different.
Jamal is a father of modalism in jazz for the very reason that he favored exotic scales and fourth chords that ultimately tended to modalism. The ultimate modal anthems—“So What” and its offshoot “Impressions”-- both derive from Jamal’s version of “Pavane.” Another essential Jamal arrangement is “Poinciana,” and it’s an exotic song, an unexpected melody with unusual harmonies. In his interview with drummer/writer Kenny Washington in the notes to the Mosaic set, Jamal says, “I heard Nat Cole, I think, say once he lived with a composition before he recorded or played it. I started living even with the lyrics. When you learn these things, you have to learn the lyrics to give a good read.”
It’s a truism beloved by musicians (I think I’ve seen it attributed elsewhere to Lester Young), and we get some interesting input if we look at the lyrics to “Poinciana,” its exotic floral name giving ways to this:
“Poinciana, somehow I feel the jungle heat,
It suggests Jamal’s kinship with some other music of the era, Raymond Scott and Martin Denny. Jamal’s bassist Israel Crosby had played with Scott and Jamal enjoyed his greatest success in the era of Denny and lounge exotica. While this notion of the exotic had continuously reshaped jazz from Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club “jungle music” to Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” to GIllespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” something particularly weird happens with “Pavane.” The exotic functions as novelty, as a kind of difference in the music of Jamal and Miles Davis. Later, in the music of John Coltrane, from “Impressions” to the arrangement of “My Favorite Things” and “Brasilia,” the exotic comes to function as the normative.
The exotic may be a form of insulation from the audience, a cover that at once attracts it and keeps it at bay. In the interview included in the Mosaic booklet, Jamal describes the event that triggered his departure from New York in 1955. Working as an intermission pianist at the Embers, Jamal was traumatized when an audience member placed a glass of wine on the piano and then spilled it: “It became the white against the red. That was it for me.” He put on his coat and left for Chicago where a few years later he would open his exotic restaurant AlHambra where he could play regularly in a club that didn’t serve alcohol. To call Jamal a cocktail pianist may be the cruellest irony a critic can commit.