Pianist Ahmad Jamal has recorded a considerable number of albums, but It’s Magic is a standout even in his lengthy discography. Jamal’s playing is particularly trenchant here; he’s aggressive and engaged, putting bassist James Cammack, drummer Idris Muhammad and percussionist Manolo Badrena through their paces throughout. Jamal is nothing if not a thinking person’s musician, and he’s adept at maneuvering the thrust of a piece on an almost second-by-second basis. Few players have the kind of reservoir of material at Jamal’s disposal, and he has a habit of pulling out references when they’re least expected. This strategy renders original compositions strangely familiar and makes standards new again. “Back to theIsland,” a calypso irresistibly jacked up by Muhammad’s tonic drumming, brings in quotes from “Old Man River” and “Hot House.” It’s a kind of oblique homage to Sonny Rollins, but Jamal adds a little bit of his own riff from “Poinciana,” just to remind you of who’s doing the playing. The title track is another of Jamal’s silky readings of a quality standard, bringing into play a multitude of subtle allusions to jazz history: a moment of Erroll Garner, a repeated figure from the melody that emphasizes a particular lyric, a brief rhythmic lag that refocuses the listener’s attention. “Wild is the Wind/Sing” percolates in a way that is uniquely Jamal’s; bass, drums and percussion simmer just below the surface while the pianist moves between ostinato chords voiced in fourths and snippets of the tunes’ melodies.
Jamal has always been one of jazz’s great interpreters of standards, and when he gets his hands on a gem like “The Way You Look Tonight,” he’s nearly in a class by himself. Ostinato playing returns with “Arabesque,” an original that the pianist has recorded on a number of occasions. With its beguiling but slight melody, the tune is more about mood than structure, and none the worse for being. “Fitnah” brings things to a close nicely. Alternating between a sinewy funk and a sophisticated swing, Jamal works the territory that he more or less invented almost 60 years ago. He was the only one doing it back then, and although he’s had generations of imitators since, he’s still the best in the world at it.