Ahmad Jamal: a tribute by Liam Noble

I have this print (*) on my wall at home, quite near the piano. I’ve been reminded, today of all days, to look at it again. On the back is the title: “Auspicious Symbols: Mount Fuji, Cranes and Pine Trees.” Objects of everyday life arranged in a way that implies more than is there.

In many ways, jazz as an African American art form is steeped in influences light years away from the Japanese aesthetic, but some musicians seem to cut across the two, of groove and contemplation, of space as both a vibrating frequency and a kind of emptiness. Steve Lacy, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis and Bill Frisell all spring to mind, but there’s one who came before them all and seemed to me to blaze a trail in the art of omission, and that’s Ahmad Jamal.

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Jazz is often criticised for its lack of space, but you can’t just knock it out any old where…and Jamal would always find that sweet spot, where you’d swear you actually heard the notes…you feel them, they’re implied, but they’re not there. It’s a clever sleight of hand, it’s witty in the way Monk was, audacious. They both liked sing song melodies where a question is invariably followed by an answer. But where Monk seemed to hack his way through space as if it was an edifice of concrete, Jamal seemed to ride the currents of it like a bird although, like a gull, he would suddenly swoop down with bizarre outbursts of orchestral flamboyance. He liked to work with a rhythm section that, whilst flexible and open-eared, would hold down a vamp or a bassline while he weaved in and out and around it. I can’t think of another pianist who had such heightened contrasts of texture and dynamics without sacrificing the groove.

I often wondered why nobody transcribes him.

Actually, that’s a lie, I know very well why: because there was nothing you could take from it, in the notes on the page at least, that would transfer to any other instrument. Most of it won’t even transfer to the piano unless you have bass players like Israel Crosby or Jamil Nasser, or drummers like Vernel Fournier or Idris Muhammed. Famous melodies trailing away right at the point you need them to end, phrases that would give you the “Twinkle twinkle little star” part and answer it with “How I wond…” How do you teach that? How do you transcribe an absence of something?

It wasn’t about the information. It wasn’t an “approach” to chords: he almost seemed, like Earl Hines (another Pittsburgh pianist), borderline contemptuous of them, skating on top of the changes or just piling right in from the side like a demented ghost of Rachmaninov. And amidst all this dazzling contrast, the rhythm section holding everything in the frame. This model applies right from the earliest trio recordings until his most recent albums like “Marseille” and “Blue Moon”. Influences come and go (there’s a lot of McCoy Tyner in his later work, harmonically at least), but this skittishness remains. In later albums, he almost buries himself in the rhythm section, happy to wander around inside the grooves. He wasn’t a soloist, despite a fleet fingered technique that is evident everywhere. He played the band, doing whatever fed the fire of the group and its infectious pulse.

“Ahmad Jamal’s Alhambra” is my favourite of the classic trio. He plays a set in his own restaurant. “We Kiss In A Shadow” sets up a gentle intro before, led by Fournier’s cymbal, a double time feel propels us into the tune, or as much of it as they want to play. Essentially he hangs close to the melody, quotes “Flight Of The Bumble Bee” and generally makes the drums and bass sound incredible. It’s ideal restaurant music. But also, it moves like a perfect machine, but it’s fleshy and full of emotion. Bass and drums converse exquisitely in the strange and wonderful gaps that Jamal opens up, while the pianist seemingly changes his mind about where he’s heading every few bars. It has the inevitability of an arrangement, but it feels like they are making it up. A mystical combination that perhaps we are all looking for as improvisers, found amongst the tables and chairs of a Chicago club. When the band ease back into the opening vamp, it’s as much a release as any symphonic movement and it’s over in five minutes. This band were a creator of worlds. “The Party’s Over” is almost comical in the way the Crosby/Fournier shuffle underpins Jamal’s alternation of whirlwind exclamations, hard swinging chords and Basie-like tinklings. At one point he just hammers one note and makes it swing. Lesson learnt.

Like Derek Bailey, he had an ability to stay consistent in his approach whilst styles and collaborators changed around him. He did his thing. Perhaps some of his music became too iconic: “Poinciana”, made famous on “Live At The Pershing” was re-recorded by him in the eighties on an album called “Digital Works”: it’s a strange track, because you can hear that this new rhythm section know what should be in there and feel unable to detract from it. Even Keith Jarrett, one of the most original voices in the music, gave in and simply played Jamal’s arrangement, with Jack DeJohnette dutifully echoing Fournier’s famous drum patterns. The problem is, it’s just too much fun to play that piece and the weight of its lightness is all persuasive.

In a way, his contribution was to change the focus from the frenetic group interplay of bebop into a refining of the instrumental roles to maximise the pulse, bringing with it a new focus on space. I guess you could say it was funk, quiet funk. And as for the materials, he stuck to the tried and tested: riffs, chords, shouts and whispers…cranes, pine trees and mountains.

(*) No artist’s name is visible; the publishing house is Yamada Unsodo, Teramachi, Kyoto, date 1900.

LINK: RIP Ahmad Jamal (1930-2023)

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6 replies »

  1. Brilliant, Liam. And a very fine tribute. Like the best writing on music, it perfectly captures those intrinsic qualities of a musician’s work that often remain elusive. Thanks, again!

  2. Lovely tribute Liam, thank you. I think Ahmad Jamal was cut from an older and more regal cloth of jazz statesmen. He exuded respectability and dignity but was also very friendly.

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