Ahmad Jamal, Now and Then

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 10.03.13 in Spotlights

It’s strange, the ways the arc of jazz history can bend. Twenty years ago, for some conservatives, Anthony Braxton epitomized everything that was wrong with jazz. In 2013, he was named an NEA Jazz Master (and rightly so).

Few jazz masters have seen their reputations yo-yo like Ahmad Jamal, now ascendant again, to judge by Saturday Morning, a French studio session recorded early in 2013 at age 82-and-a-half. There was a time when Jamal was considered disreputably dainty, a mere crowd-pleaser playing fussy, corseted arrangements of pretty tunes. The opening “Back to the Future” may serve as (re)introduction to the two-fisted Jamal — product of Pittsburgh, that font of piano talent: Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Dodo Marmarosa, Erroll Garner, Sonny Clark, Horace Parlan.

“Back to the Future” is kicked along by a delayed-second-beat Cuban syncopation via New Orleans’s Herlin Riley, who’d had an ’80s stint with the pianist, and favors a tight, in-the-pocket stance throughout — his cooking more about the hi-hat slapping shut than a ringing ride cymbal. There’s funk in Reginald Veal’s bass grooves too, not least when he doubles Jamal’s left hand for a fat reinforced foundation — as on the longer take of the title track, where after riding the groove a good while, the pianist takes some weird side trips. “The Line”‘s deep groove has more than a little dub reggae in it.

From early on, Jamal has been a great and witty quoter, studding solos with bits of odd songs from all over — quoting his own ’50s benchmark “Pavanne” on “Firefly,” the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on “One,” and the Association’s 1967 hit “Windy” near the end of “Silver” (an homage to pianist Horace). On Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad,” Jamal keeps divvying in snatches of Duke’s “Just Squeeze Me” and Ellington’s piano intro to Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” in effect juggling three tunes at once.

Not that the album is perfect; a loose and discursive “I’m in the Mood for Love” makes me long for his old trio’s taut economy. Rounding out the quartet, percussionist Manolo Badrena abets the Latin polyrhythms on bongos and conga, but also employs gizmos that should have been moth-balled long ago: flexatones, chime racks and whistles.

Jamal has been making deep-groove records for awhile — the 2011 recording Blue Moon, for instance. His modern stuff is splashier than the pristinely clean and precise jazz he played at first, but he was already using Afro-Caribbean rhythms back then. By the early ’50s, many small jazz bands had caught a mild Latin bug, adding a conga or bongo player. Jamal’s first trio had no drummer at all, but his under-praised guitarist Ray Crawford often mimicked bongos, slapping strings against the neck or pickup screws — as he did on “Will You Still Be Mine” or the spry Jamal arrangement of the kids’ song “Billy Boy” that other pianists cribbed. Crawford’s mock-bongos echoed on even after Jamal replaced him with kit drummers — notably Vernel Fournier, another New Orleanean bringing those second-line beats. (The classic statement from that trio is 1958′s live At the Pershing, one of the records that kept Chess/Argo afloat.)

Jamal’s trio music was so strikingly designed and cleanly executed that some critics dismissed it as cocktail music, until Miles Davis spoke up, pointing to Jamal’s influence on his own music — the understatement, use of silence and open space, and melodic orientation as an improviser. The several tunes Jamal wrote or recorded that Miles covered made his admiration plain — including “Billy Boy” and “Ahmad’s Blues,” features for Davis’s admiring pianist Red Garland. (Even more than Miles, Jamal exploits contrasting dynamics, very soft versus grandly loud: “I still hear orchestras in my head,” he told drummer Kenny Washington in 2003.)

Less obviously influential on Davis’s conception was Jamal’s way of tweaking a song’s form: adding interludes or tags (extended endings), or improvising over a form that differs from the melody’s. For the trio, every tune was a fresh project, a specific object with distinctive features to draw out. Miles really capitalized on those ideas in his great 1960s quintet — though sideman Cannonball Adderley had noted that very particular Jamal influence by 1959.

That was the year of Miles’s Kind of Blue, and the rise of modal improvising on unrelated scales. That album figures in a little whirlwind of serial influences, with Jamal at its center. In 1955, his trio with Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby recorded “Pavanne,” a 1935 light classic from composer Morton Gould’s Symphonette No. 2. Per Gould (and the orchestra in Jamal’s head), at around 1:30 they go into a holding pattern on one chord, then move it up a half step. They didn’t improvise on that episode; Crawford played a slinky little melody that sounded like a spontaneous fill, lifted straight from the Symphonette. But Miles liked that modulating holding pattern enough to build his classic blowing tune “So What” on it. And Miles’s sideman John Coltrane so liked improvising on that same form, he recycled it into his own “Impressions” two years later, borrowing Crawford’s “Pavanne” guitar lick for the melody — probably not realizing it originated with Morton Gould.

With the 1960s, Jamal’s reputation began to wane again, as he made albums with choirs, strings and electric piano. One of the first jazz gigs I ever saw, in 1974, remains one of the oddest: For the first set Jamal played his current single, the theme from M*A*S*H, for 45 minutes. The second set, he did it again.

Miles Davis in his 1989 autobiography lamented that Jamal was (again) underrated. After that, the pianist gradually ascended to elder statesman status. The NEA declared him a Jazz Master in ’94, and he worked and recorded regularly. He became easy to take for granted. Then a record like Saturday Morning comes along to remind you he can still deliver.