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By Shea Serrano
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By Michael E. Miller
"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.
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.