Letting Jazz Breathe

While Jamal is revered among jazz players, his accomplishments haven't gone unnoticed in the larger culture. In 1958 his trio's album But Not for Me spent an astounding 108 weeks on the Billboard's Top 10, becoming one of the first jazz records to gross over one million dollars. This type of commercial success in jazz is nothing to scoff at, and wasn't, even in those halcyon days of the music's heightened popularity.

He has not seen the same kind of response since. But like his late acolyte Miles Davis, Jamal is unconcerned with public approval. "I will continue doing this," he says, "without even thinking about anyone overlooking it."

Jamal is likewise little concerned with chasing musical trends. Instead he is content to polish and refine the concept he began to propound nearly 50 years ago. This is the general thrust of his most recent album, Nature, which features his current lineup: bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammed, augmented by the virtuosic steel drumming of Othello Molineaux. Jamal provides evidence that his personal concept is indeed still developing, with sensitive arrangements of "Like Someone in Love" and "End of a Love Affair," as well as original works such as "If I Find You Again," which have the timeless quality of standard. As always he brings out the best in his surrounding musicians, coaxing an assertive musical statement out of Molineaux's unorthodox instrument.

Given his desire to express himself in the most detailed of musical terms, Jamal must often play the dual role of instrumentalist and conductor on the bandstand. "Everything has to be conducted, whether it's a large, 100-piece orchestra or something of a smaller setting; otherwise it's limited in where it's going to go," Jamal explains. "When you want to have a great presentation, you have to use dynamics, you have to use many different colors, if I may. You can't do that unless you conduct."

Yet Jamal is less the imposing despot onstage than he is a sculptor, shaping the musical matter until it takes a form that pleases. He still leaves his musicians plenty of room to move, and his band provides support with personality, keeping with the tradition of his earlier group. The versatile Cammack is exceedingly comfortable swinging, funking, or soloing, and Muhammed, decked out in his signature sunglasses and beret, plays with an earthiness indicative of his New Orleans roots.

While Jamal's music continues to grow and progress in the latter stages of his career, he is distraught over the state of contemporary jazz. "This is the endangered species now. You have great technicians and a lot of focus on the techniques of music, but you don't have the singular voice of an Erroll Garner or Billy Strayhorn. These types of personalities are fast disappearing," he laments.

But rather than waxing nostalgic for the jazz of the past, he continues to find inspiration in his origins. "I'm the only survivor of a concert given for Duke Ellington's 25th anniversary in 1953, which featured Stan Getz, Billie Holiday when she returned to New York, Charlie Parker with Strings, and myself. So I'm still busy tapping my sources."

Ahmad Jamal plays 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, March 3, at the Amaturo Theater, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $27.50 and are available by calling the box office at 954-462-0222.

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