Album review

Ahmad Jamal: ‘Emerald City Nights, Live at the Penthouse 1963-1964’ and ‘Emerald City Nights, Live at the Penthouse 1965-1966’

Ahmad Jamal – Emerald City Nights, Live at the Penthouse 1963-1964 / Emerald City Nights, Live at the Penthouse 1965-1966
(Jazz Detective DDJD-001 and DDJD-002. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

The inaugural releases on Zev Feldman’s new label, the wonderfully named Jazz Detective Records, consist of a glittering series of live performances by the estimable Ahmad Jamal from the 1960s, recorded for radio broadcasts from a club called the Penthouse in Seattle – in those days touring jazz stars coming to the West Coast to play Los Angeles and San Francisco would also make a point of hitting Seattle.

The Penthouse opened its doors in 1962. Despite its name it was inevitably a ground floor establishment, and none too large. (The liner notes suggest the moniker was trading on the notoriety of Penthouse magazine, but that lively publication didn’t debut until 1965.) The club was generally equipped with a baby grand piano. However, since Jamal was one of owner Charlie Puzzo’s favourite players he always upgraded this to a concert grand just for him.

The sense that these gigs were something special – how often can the phrase ‘labour of love’ be used in connection with a club owner? – continues with the immaculate recordings made on site and featured at that time in live radio broadcasts on local Seattle station King FM.

Charlie Puzzo didn’t just ensure that Jamal had a decent piano for these sessions. He also, praise the lords of magnetic tape, maintained an archive of recordings of these shows, and here they are on a series of double vinyl albums (and also CDs if you swing that way), sounding fresh, clear and beautifully pure.

The line-up on the first double LP is Jamal on piano, Chuck Lampkin on drums and either Richard Evans or Jamil Nasser on bass. On the second album it’s Jamal and Nasser throughout with Chuck Lampkin, and either Vernel Fournier or Frank Gant on drums.

Jamal has aways had a very distinctive approach and feel. Jaunty and accessible, the sophistication at work in his playing isn’t immediately obvious. But what is going on is a unique combination of skill and sensibility that moves his music effortlessly from the catchy to the complex. Johnny One Note has a Latin feel but one that is soon tilted into abstraction and angularity. Lollipop and Roses is plangent and percussive, Tangerine jauntily hip and hiply jaunty, developing with a biting edge of Monkish modernism.

Minor Moods, a Jamal composition, is a highpoint, richly detailed yet spacious and tremendously toe-tappingly involving. But the breathless excitement of a live performance really comes across on Bogota. “The artist interacting with the audience elevates it,” says Jamal of playing live. Absolutely.

I Didn’t Know What Time it Was is gorgeously adroit, with lyrical, rushing piano from Jamal which flows and slows into a delta of considered experimentation while Lampkin accompanies with military-march percussion. Who Can I Turn To is taken at a grateful, stately pace that modulates into a brief blaze of brilliant decoration for its finale. Another Newley and Bricusse tune, Feeling Good, swings irresistibly and is played by Jamal with great firmness and button-holing authority that alternates with an intoxicating lightness of touch. His ability to extract the melodic and rhythmic value from a song is unparalleled.

These are outstanding recordings and it’s a thrill to learn that Ahmad Jamal himself, now 92 and no longer touring but very much still engaged, supervised their release. Jazz Detective Records (I can’t get enough of that name) have done full justice to these fine performances and superbly preserved tapes with first rate transfers to 180g vinyl. The albums come with lavish, well-illustrated, authoritative booklets. These two albums are part of a projected series of three. Roll on the third instalment…

LINK: Pre-order the album here

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