Pianist Ahmad Jamal rose to fame by doing something completely different.
By Michael Ullman
Now 87 (his birthday is on July 2nd) and active as ever, pianist Ahmad Jamal has just issued a new disc, Marseille, which features bassist James Cammack, drummer Herlin Riley, percussionist Manolo Badrena, and a brace of vocalists.
Jamal found fame as a jazz musician in 1958 with his live recordings (issued by Argo Records) made at Chicago’s Pershing Lounge. I was captivated by But Not for Me and At the Pershing as an early teen (I had already gotten a hold of his first Argo recording, 1956’s Count’Em 88.) As a musician, Jamal was mystifying but not to the point of putting the listener off. I remember well the impact of Jamal’s solo on “But Not for Me,” and later on “Poinciana’ and “Billy Boy.” At times, Jamal barely seemed to play: he made terse comments, often high up in the treble. It is as if he wanted to vanish behind what bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier were doing. He was more interested in not playing than playing. He was into implicating rather than performing — his clipped phrases barely tried to complete the melody of “But Not for Me.” Even more challenging was his stripped down solo chorus, in which he plays the same phrase over and over again. I couldn’t believe it. Here I’d been listening to Louis Armstrong with clarinetist Edmond Hall, the latter’s his dancing phrases surrounding Armstrong’s solos. Every moment was packed with creative business. And I’d just discovered the flowing music of Charlie Parker. Where did Jamal get the nerve to stick to one bit of melody?
Jamal was something completely different. The mystery around him was inflated (briefly) by a publicist who suggested he was from Nigeria. (He was from Pittsburgh.) The irony is that the musician didn’t need the publicist’s help. As I listened, at first almost indignantly, I realized that Jamal’s ideas hung together, somehow; also, by hook or by crook, his performances always swung. He was more subtle rhythmically than one might conclude on a first listening: his icy phrases could bend and stretch like taffy. His dynamic range was surprisingly wide. He raced through “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” alternating dainty phrases (made by his left hand) with heavy pounding block chords. At the Pershing not only became a hit record but it influenced a number of musicians. Jamal’s greatest fan was Miles Davis, who recorded many of the tunes that the pianist introduced; he asked pianist Red Garland (on “Ahmad’s Blues” and elsewhere) to play block chords like Jamal.
Jamal has never let up since. He travels the world and has continued to record. He’s always looked forward with confidence: he states in a recent publicity video that Marseilles is a masterpiece. He records the title cut three times, once as an instrumental, twice featuring lyrics (sung in French by vocalists Abd Al Malik and Mina Agossi) that are dedicated to the ancient city, known to the Greeks as Massalia. In the instrumental version, drummer Herlin Riley plays a march rhythm on his snares: Marseilles must have military connotations to Jamal. The poem, in contrast, is chiefly about the composer’s romantic melancholy rather than any triumphs or defeats that came to this port city, the second largest city in France. “My life is full of deep regret,” the narrator laments, as if he were another young Werther.
Eventually the city stands, unconvincingly to my ears, for some sort of personal sorrow, complete with its “sea and all its splendor and regret.” The music, though, is haunting. The romantic theme is pretty much disconnected from the snares, yet the performance has the deft discipline and coherence we expect from Jamal. Amongst the album’s originals are two traditional pieces. Jamal’s version of “Autumn Leaves” brings us (nearly) back to his original trios; and he makes “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” rock. He states the theme emphatically, introduces sudden accents and, in one chorus, adds a thumping interruption via left hand chords. With its shifts in volume and technique, its hushes and crashes, its delicate melodic inventions, the performance is classic Jamal. If only Miles were around to praise it.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.