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"I've always been an orchestral player and an orchestral thinker. I don't even allow people to bill me as trio anymore, because it's too limiting," says 68-year-old pianist Ahmad Jamal. Coming from just about anyone else, this might be considered semantic nitpicking. But after reinventing jazz piano nearly 50 years ago, and honing his musical approach to pinpoint precision since then (amassing fans along the way), Jamal has earned the right to call his group whatever the hell he wants.
The first few years of most musicians' public careers are often a time of development, but Jamal is one of those rarities, like Thelonious Monk and Tony Williams, who arrived on the scene with an already mature musical concept. Given his background, this precocity hardly comes as a surprise.
Jamal began classical piano training at age three. By age ten he had composed his first big-band piece. As a teen he played in various acts around his hometown of Pittsburgh. In 1950, at twenty years old, he became a band leader and recording artist for a small division of CBS Records. Two years later he formed a now-legendary band with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernell Fournier on drums.
As led by Jamal, this trio offered a counterpoint to a jazz scene that was still reeling from the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Where bebop was about open jam-session-style blowing, technical pyrotechnics, furious tempos, and codified musical references, Jamal's approach was more compositional, concentrating on melodic phrasing, space, and elemental groove. He and his bandmates proposed to let the music breathe a little bit.
During the Fifties the threesome released a number of albums -- mostly live recordings -- that Jamal has since called the most "perfect" ensemble documents of his career. Records such as Ahmad's Blues and Live at the Pershing (a Chicago concert recently re-released in its entirety as Cross Country Tour) capture the group in all its distinctive glory, whether navigating the contours of a song like "It Could Happen to You" with guileless simplicity, or turning a one-chord vamp on "Autumn Leaves" into a climactic funk romp. In the hands of Jamal, a unique interpreter of standard and popular songs, a cheeky classic like "Stompin' at the Savoy" becomes a thematically developed opus, the balladic "Secret Love" a gospelly groove-tune, the lilting "Let's Fall in Love" a three-alarm fire.
This group, which became the blueprint for all of Jamal's future small ensembles, was what Miles Davis called, indelicately but precisely, "a motherfucker." Not only could they stop on a dime when the arrangements called for it (and they most often did), but each member had a wholly distinct musical personality. Vernell Fournier (using a stripped-down drumkit that only included bass drum, hi-hat, snare, and cymbal, and playing with brushes most of the time) somehow managed to make an old-school style like "four on the floor" sound contemporary. Israel Crosby has become an institution for bass players by virtue of his enormous sound and swing feel.
Always at the focus, however, was Jamal's piano playing, which was nothing short of groundbreaking. Although he based his style on the pianists who had come before him, such as Art Tatum, Monk, and Bud Powell, his approach was distinct. He played "free" harmonies and counterrhythms before avant-garde jazz existed as a genre. Of the Cage school of thought that silence can be as effective as sound, Jamal would sometimes end his improvised lines midphrase, and even omit entire sections of the melody of a song, while his rhythm section thumped away, unaffected.
Although he usually kept his powerful technique in check, at rare moments of tension he would unleash dazzling glissandos or sequences that covered the entire register of the piano. "In Pittsburgh we don't have the separation of European classical music and American classical music," Jamal notes. "We grew up listening to everything ... playing Art Tatum and Brahms, and Count Basie and Bach."
Jamal's experience with European classical music is quite apparent, both in his acute technical command of the piano and in his "orchestral" arranging style, which often manifests itself in intricate ensemble work. A firm believer in what he calls "the power of the pen," Jamal scores about 70 percent of his ensemble material on paper. Understandably he is miffed by the critical tendency to dismiss jazz as improvisational fancy. "The only two art forms that have developed in the United States are American Indian art and this thing called jazz," he maintains. "I was the one who started calling [jazz] American classical music, and I laugh sometimes when I hear it being used because I don't get the credit, but the fact is, that's what jazz is."
One of Jamal's most eager adherents was Miles Davis. In the process of reinventing his own group sound in the mid-Fifties, Davis cited Jamal's purity of approach, his use of "space" in his solos, and his choice of repertoire as a huge influence. It is rumored that Davis actually told Red Garland, his then-pianist, to play more like Jamal. And the trumpeter's own playing, right down to his penchant for melodic interpretation, owes plenty to Jamal's innovations.