In the latest of our series where musicians consider idols or formative influences, Nick Tomalin writes about his favourite tracks by pianist Ahmad Jamal, who died on 16th April 2023 aged 92.
Nick Tomalin writes: I was lucky enough to see Ahmad Jamal perform with his trio at London’s Southbank Centre sometime in the late 90’s. The gig was quite a revelation for me as I’d previously only heard his famous recordings from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s (Live at the Pershing, Live at the Blackhawk etc) and was expecting something similar. At the start of the gig Ahmad launched into an incredible solo piano introduction which combined virtuosic runs with modal vamps and some almost free passages – it was not what I was expecting! The rest of the gig continued in the same vein. I remember particularly the almost telepathic rapport between the three musicians and the way Ahmad would cue different sections of the arrangement sometimes using hand signals. Also remarkable was the huge dynamic range they encompassed, from the lightest possible pianissimo to the most strident fortissimo sections. The music seemed integrated and highly controlled, and yet at the same time somehow dangerous and exploratory. It also demonstrated that like most of the greatest players in jazz, Ahmad was not content to rest on his laurels and reproduce a sound which had been successful for him forty years previously but was always pushing at the boundaries of the music.
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Ahmad Jamal was born Frederic Russell Jones on July 2nd. 1930 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had formal lessons from the age of seven and by the age of fourteen was playing professionally. Jamal was always very proud of his Pittsburgh roots, particularly the fact that the city boasted a rich tradition of jazz pianists including Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Errol Garner and Earl Hines, and Jamal himself was influenced to some extent both by Garner’s orchestral style, and Hines’s playfulness.
After graduating from George Washington High School in 1948 Jamal began touring with George Hudson’s Orchestra. He also joined another touring group called the Four Strings and although the group disbanded, Ahmad revived the name in 1951 and, modifying it to The Three Strings, formed what would be his first commercially successful band with guitarist Ray Crawford on guitar and Eddie Calhoun (later Richard Davis and then Israel Crosby) on bass. Music impresario John Hammond saw the band perform at the Embers club in New York and signed them to Okeh Records for whom the band made their first recordings.
- Autumn Leaves
Miles Davis ‘borrowed’ this arrangement for the ‘Something Else’ session he recorded with Cannonball Adderley in 1958 – even down to the orchestrated stabs which follow the head in Jamal’s version. Miles admits as much on the liner notes when he namechecks Ahmad and says, “I got the idea for this treatment of Autumn Leaves from listening to him”. Jamal sets up the riff on the piano which is then taken up by Israel Crosby while Ray Crawford plays a kind of conga pattern on the body of his guitar. Jamal then plays an embellished version of the tune, accompanied by gently jabbing chords. After the interlude, Ahmad plays an improvised chorus and ends by fading out on the vamp. Jamal’s playing includes many of the features that he would later develop into his unique sound. Delicate, cleanly articulated lines, often using the high register of the piano, arranged sections juxtaposed with sections of improvisation punctuated by rhythmic vamps
2. Green Dolphin Street
Ahmad’s first trio recording with drums, and another performance which proved influential on Miles Davis. who recorded a very similar arrangement the next year (1957). As well as finding influence in his arrangements, Miles was also impressed by Ahmad’s use of space, and his way of phrasing a tune. Here Ahmad plays a long solo alternating between single-note lines and block chord sections where the piano almost sounds like a big band horn section.
3. But Not for Me
Recorded at the Pershing Lounge in 1958 during the trio’s residency there, At the Pershing: But Not for Me was a huge commercial success for Ahmad. It topped America’s jazz charts for months and spent 107 weeks on Billboard’s album charts. Jamal’s version of ‘Poinciana’ from that album also became a hit single. The title track is a great demonstration of Ahmad’s mature style. Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier set up a groove (with Fournier playing a similar conga pattern to Ray Crawford, but on kit) while Ahmad hints at the tune without ever really playing it, almost the way a painter might use light to suggest a scene or object without ever painting it directly. This approach encourages the listener to ‘fill in the gaps’ whilst also allowing space for the groove. Ahmad’s solo again highlights his orchestral approach, and the fact that such a conceptually sophisticated style could also be so accessible and successful is testament to Ahmad’s genius.
4. Darn That Dream
Recorded live at the Blackhawk Club in San Francisco in 1961. Jamal performed this same arrangement for a TV special at CBS studios in 1960, and it’s quite instructive to compare the two performances. Ahmad uses the same arranged sections in both versions but combines them in different ways, thus keeping the performance fresh and spontaneous sounding. Jamal plays the tune in the unusual key of Db and plays it as a bright swing instead of a ballad.
Israel Crosby died in 1962 to be replaced by Jamil Nasser. The 1965 album Extensions brought a new level of abstraction into Jamal’s sound. The title track is based on ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ but has been thoroughly deconstructed. The piece begins with a series of piano cadences which introduce cadenzas by the bass and drums. An Afro-Cuban style vamp (with Jamal playing inside the piano), alternates with sections of furious swing. It’s compelling and completely original.
6. The Look of Love
This comes from the 1968 album Tranquility with Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Grant on drums. Grant plays a kind of double-time funk groove while Nasser plays sustained pedal points. Ahmad’s playing draws on McCoy Tyner’s language of pentatonic scales and quartal voicings, but interprets it in his own unique way. The result is startlingly modern and even reminds me of some of the territory Esbjorn Svensson would later explore with his trio.
7. I Love Music
From the album ‘The Awakening’, again with Nasser and Grant. A pretty, cyclic progression which Ahmad subjects to a series of solo rhapsodic variations, with bass and drums joining about half-way through. A section of this track was famously sampled by hip-hop producer Pete Rock and formed the basis of Nas’s track “The World Is Yours”. In a way Ahmad’s music with its emphasis on tight grooves, and cyclic vamp sections is a perfect fit for hip-hop.
8. Manhattan Reflections
As the seventies progressed Ahmad began incorporating more originals into his sets. This performance from the Monterey Jazz Festival 1971 is typical of some of the modal tunes he wrote during this period. Ahmad introduces a funky line which is taken up by the bass while the piano plays a quartal riff over the top. This performance is notable as one of the first recordings Ahmad made using the Fender Rhodes, which he would sometimes incorporate into his recordings.
9. Prelude To A Kiss
Jamal continued to release a steady stream of albums during the eighties and nineties. This comes from a session in 1995 with Ephraim Wolfolk on bass and Arti Dixon on drums where Jamal pays tribute to the songs of Ellington, Strayhorn and Hoagy Carmichael. Strayhorn’s lush chords provide a perfect vehicle for Ahmad’s impressionistic interpretation. Jamal always cited Art Tatum as an influence, and on these later albums where his prodigious technique is more to the fore, the debt is obvious.
10. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
This is taken from Ahmad’s penultimate album Marseille released when he was 86 years old. Ahmad gives the old spiritual a funky treatment and in a nod to the man who so championed the young Jamal’s music, incorporates a quote from Miles Davis’s Jean Pierre. Ahmad Jamal deserves to be remembered as one of the all-time greats, who through his influence on Miles perhaps did more to influence the direction of jazz in the 1950’s than any other single musician.