Ahmad Jamal, Poinciana Revisited / Freeflight

Charles Farrell

By Charles Farrell

on 08.04.11 in Reviews

Although pianist Ahmad Jamal’s tenure with Impulse Records in the early 1970s may not have brought him the kind of attention that his earlier trio recordings during the late 1950s on Argo and Emarcy did, it produced what is arguably his best work. Jamal’s playing was freer and more technically accomplished than during his first burst of recognition, and the albums were both played on better pianos and were better recorded.

Two of Jamal’s best works from the early 1970s

The Impulse dates also caught him in a live performance at a time of stylistic equipoise, when he was still accessible enough to be enjoyed by casual jazz fans (his early constituency), but sufficiently challenging to be taken seriously by aficionados. Poinciana Revisited/Freeflight combines two of his three (“The Awakening” is the other) best works from the period.

Poinciana Revisited / Freeflight

Ahmad Jamal

Jamal confines himself to the acoustic piano on “Poinciana Revisited,” but adds Fender Rhodes on “Freeflight.” His rhythm section — bassist Jamil Sulieman and drummer Frank Gant — are onboard for both sessions. None of the players in his rhythm section are “names,” and most didn’t have high profile careers after their tenure with Jamal, but they are inevitably spot-on in their roles. What Jamal’s bassist and drummer are required to do seems easy, but isn’t. They set an effortless groove, nail the boss’s incredibly idiosyncratic hits, and remain alert enough to catch his ever shifting cues. They hit their stride the moment they pick up the leader’s a cappella opening to “Have You Met Miss Jones,” a deep Latinish groove over a huge pedal tone. The trio has a great trick of implying swing without ever giving over to it. This creates an irresistible rhythmic tension that Jamal is a master at dispelling with in the pocket denouement.

“Poinciana” is the tune that originally put Ahmad Jamal on the map. A rare jazz mainstream hit, that version is imprinted in the minds of many listeners. The update here is better; as infectious as the ’50s one, this rendition is more imaginative and freer. J.J. Johnson’s “Lament” is an object lesson on how to play a ballad by extracting only its key elements and never reducing it to melodrama. “Call Me” is even better. Fleetly articulated, Jamal again finds the song’s most important phrases and then uses them as touchstones. Drummer Gant keeps things percolating on “How Insensitive,” providing a bedrock underpinning for the leader’s explorations. The tricky and attractive theme of “Effendi” is taken on acoustic piano, but Jamal solos on Rhodes, producing an effectively blurry wash of sound. It’s interesting to hear one pianist’s take on another’s work. Here the experiment is Herbie Hancock’s wonderful “Dolphin Dance.” Jamal takes his time getting to the theme, circling it obliquely until suddenly embracing it reassuringly. There’s a second “Poinciana” to close out the proceedings. More pensive and subtle — and freer still — than the album’s earlier take, it again illustrates Ahmad Jamal’s total mastery of ellipsis: he knows exactly which structural components make up the heart of the tune. Those stated, he is free to roam freely in a manner that is sui generis.