Review: Ahmad Jamal Quartet at the Barbican

Ahmad Jamal at the Barbican. Photo credit: Roger Thomas.All Rights Reserved
Ahmad Jamal Quartet
(Barbican, 8 February 2013; review and drawing below by Geoff Winston)

‘Mr Jamal is always on top of his art.’ Seydou Barry’s on-stage introduction was spot on – as producer on Ahmad Jamal‘s latest album, ‘Blue Moon’, he should know. Jamal acknowledges the profundity of the jazz genre and has coined the epithet ACM (American Classical Music) to better describe the music.

This immaculate quartet concert at the Barbican made his case with consummate elegance. With its mixture of musical empathy and virtuosity, intelligence was written all over every minute of their near two hour performance. No scores, everything left to chance yet nothing left to chance, rigorously rehearsed, they made an indelible mark. Memorable for the lightest of touches on his early classics – ‘Chamber Music of the New Jazz’ and ‘Live at the Pershing’ – Jamal has extended his musical vision and repertoire immeasurably, and in his eighty-third year he demonstrated that his razor sharp technique is enviably unmatched.

Like Martial Solal, another exceptional pianist of a similar vintage, he demonstrated untrammeled freshness and dexterity in his imaginative application to the possibilities that the piano reveals. He flipped with lightning speed from brightly flowing caresses of the keyboard to densely soaked chordal encrustations. His tinkling upper register interpretations of melodic figures – including his own ‘Autumn Rain’ and favourites to which he returns, ‘This is the Life’ and ‘Laura’ – were complemented by heftily grounded, arpeggio-rich explorations and a facility which can only be described as breathtaking.

Jamal directed every move of the exquisite rhythm trio of Herlin Riley (drums), Reginald Veal (bass) and percussionist Manuel Badrena with a keen alertness and humility, pointing at key moments to the players as they passed the initiative around. Badrena, who changed the perception of the percussionist in his work with Weather Report, added the sheer enjoyment and mystery of a Latin dimension through bells, cuica and Pascoal-tinged vocalisings.

Riley and Veal have few equals – Eric Harland and Reuben Rogers spring to mind – in their impeccable, minimally accented timekeeping. Riley supplied the merest of metronomic ticks, overtaken by insistent funk backbeats which never seemed out of place, handling each with both restraint and verve. Veal put down key repetitive phrases, which in this context were perfectly placed. As he handed them to Jamal, they explored all their potential rather than leaning on them for support. They showed how, in the right hands, the simplest of tunes is never simple.

Jamal’s unimpaired solo extemporisations, balancing the group excursions, were quite magical in their concentrated understatement, and each of his trio was given sufficient room to show just how brilliant they were in their own right.

Jamal has said that he doesn’t ‘believe we’re “creative”, that the most we can do is discover, receive.” – and this voyage of discovery was a pure joy. As the man in the next seat to me said – ‘I could listen to him play all night.’ I couldn’t have agreed more. The concert was an absolute delight.

Ahmad Jamal Quartet. Drawing by Geoff Winston. All Rights Reserved

Categories: miscellaneous

7 replies »

  1. Sure – in his first break between numbers Jamal described it as a new piece called 'Saturday Morning' – maybe it'll be on the next album! And then he mentioned that the number that followed (the second number) was 'This is the Life' which Sammy Davis Jnr sang in the musical 'Golden Boy' – “one of my favourites.” he said, before playing standing at the piano for a few moments, letting out a bluesy lick and then heaving in some weighty chord work.

    Hope that helps.


  2. I should also mention Jamal's Grammy Nomination – today is the day of the ceremony (10 Feb):

    From Jazz Village: 'Tune in to The Grammy Awards this Sunday on CBS at 8pm PST (7pm Central)! Ahmad Jamal's “Blue Moon” is nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental.'

    And the sound at the Barbican was amazing – clear as a bell, beautifully balanced – Barry did name check BOSE – but why not when it was that good? The sound team did an incredible job.

    There were also some nice lighting projections which were not unsympathetic for once.


  3. Spot on Geoff. Gill and I thought it was one of our 'stand out' concerts. It rounded off a great couple of days in London.

  4. I am the “Anon” who asked about Saturday morning. Thanks Geoff. Clive Davis in the Times today opines that AJ is the world's greatest living jazz musician. Got me idly wondering who the competition might be?

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