Jazz Album Review: A Critic Turns Around — Ahmad Jamal’s “Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse”
By Steve Provizer
The music in these recordings represents only a moment in pianist Ahmad Jamal’s long career, but it’s more than enough to demonstrate the singularity and importance of his work.
Ahmad Jamal, Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse, 1963-64 and 1965-66. (Jazz Detective)
I’d made up my mind about the music of pianist Ahmad Jamal a long time ago. I classified him as a player who knew what he wanted to say and could play it, but I just wasn’t that keen on hearing what he had to say. Now, after having spent several enlightening hours listening to a release of recordings Jamal made in 1964, I wondered how I’d missed what this guy has to offer (he’s still alive). Perhaps I’d lazily bought into some of the critical views of his playing as a kind of advanced cocktail piano. I now think that the truisms about his playing — even the positive ones — are some of the most sloppily conceived about any jazz musician.
Jamal is commonly characterized as having a “minimalist” style, a “light touch” and an “economy of means” (whatever that means). His chief influences are seen as Nat “King” Cole, Earl Hines, and Art Tatum — okay as far as it goes, but it excludes fellow Pittsburgh native Errol Garner (on this release, “But Not For Me” is almost an homage to Garner — the time shifts, the tremolos and extended locked octaves). As far as the others — yes — and he truly absorbed their influence. A light touch? In fact, his touch becomes whatever it needs to be, ranging from light, quicksilver Nat Cole-like lines and variations on the dexterity of Hines to the thunderous attack of Tatum. If he had not mastered these styles, Jamal would not have been able to carry off his uniquely spacious, orchestral approach, which relies on his ability to stylistically shift on a dime. I have never heard another pianist do this and it’s astonishing to me that this is not a part of the analytical canon around Jamal.
The question arises as to how Jamal can employ such an eclectic approach without having his compositions devolve into chaos. They retain their cohesion for several reasons. One is that his trios maintain two levels of communication. An inter-group consciousness develops among like-minded, long-term musical partners, and that allows them to develop an anticipatory capability. The second contributor to order is rehearsal. There’s a lot that seems to happen spontaneously in these performances that is, in fact, the result of musicians having worked on a composition hard and long enough to ensure that it retains its overall shape. The result is that dramatic changes seem to happen with empyrean ease. As Jamal has said, “We rehearsed a lot and I wrote a lot. I had a big thick book. Most of the things I charted.”
Something else that gives Jamal’s music coherence and depth: the density of the subtext he infuses into his soloing and arranging. The use of quotations is common in jazz and has been commented on in Jamal’s case. However, his subtext runs deeper than just quotations. His performances are an interpretation of the music, the lyrics, and the emotional expectations that surround the composition. Take “Tangerine,” and “Lollipops and Roses” in this album, for example. We have a set of expectations for standards that are commonly interpreted as being “romantic” in intent. Jamal layers meta comment on meta comment, either reifying or undermining conventional expectations — shifting between those poles. He sets us up to expect cliché phrases and transitions and then pulls the rug out from under us. He lures us in with sections of walking bass and piano lines and then proceeds to break such lulling moments into shards. And, because the spirit behind this reinterpretation is playful and expansive, we don’t feel alienated or confused; we feel as though we’re experiencing the creation of a dynamic and emotionally satisfying dramatic arc. This dedication to the organic may explain the longevity of Jamal’s career, and why his 1958 live album At the Pershing: But Not for Me, with the eight-minute song “Poinciana,” stayed on the Billboard charts for 107 weeks and sold over a million copies.
Jamal’s “economy of means” is also extolled. This phrase was drawn on to explain why Miles Davis had such an affinity with the keyboardist’s music. Here is what Jamal says about musical efficiency: “There’s an amount of showiness and showing off in front of musicians, which is always a mistake.… Some people call it space, but I call it discipline.” The fact is, he dares to let the music breathe — not something you can do if you feel you have something to prove. This belief in the value of laying back is at the center of what drew Miles to Jamal’s playing. Davis, in fact, asked his pianist Red Garland to play more like Jamal. And Garland could, because he was already alert to the kind of space that Jamal created. Davis was also attracted to Jamal’s compositions, which he often played, and to their through-composed nature, though this last was not something that Miles’s small groups ever attempted. However, in collaborations with Gil Evans, he was able to create something like it. The most specific example is on the album Miles Ahead, where he and Gil Evans took Jamal’s “New Rhumba” and simply scored Jamal’s arrangement for a larger group.
Let me note that this encouragement of spaciousness in Jamal’s playing and arrangements by no means dominates his performances. However, it is echoed in the large and open chords Jamal sometimes uses and it stands out by way of contrast to other, more forceful and virtuosic sections.
There are other elements in the pianist’s playing that separate him from the pack: his ability to swing when playing softly; his use of richer voicings in the left hand at a time when pianists were under the sway of Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk’s sparse left hand; his inspirational comping behind other soloists; his use of fadeout and false endings, the unexpected insertion of pedal points, extended vamps, and repeating harmonies and riffs to build tension.
The music in these recordings represents only a moment in Jamal’s long career, but it’s more than enough to demonstrate the singularity and importance of his work. This time around, my ears were open and what I heard sparked a reevaluation of this master that will serve as a springboard for exploration of other periods of his work. As I said up top, I consider much that’s been written about Jamal either half-truth or secondhand rhetoric. So, if you’ve read about the music but not listened to it, you are on notice: while critics may have failed the music, the musician has not.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.