Ahmad Jamal died of prostate cancer last week, poor man, at the grand old age of 92. He was so cool he taught Miles Davis how to be it – and do it. Less is more, in a nutshell. His lean approach to the keyboard was derided by certain members of the community as cocktail jazz, but Miles recognised, exploited and acknowledged the pianist's light touch and use of space and other techniques as stylistically ground-breaking. It wasn't coincidental that Red Garland, his regular pianist throughout the years of his first great quintet that recorded for Prestige and then Columbia in the second half of the '50s, sounded more than a little like Jamal: the bouncy left-hand, the spider-like runs across the keyboard with his right, the blocked chords – and a certain use of space, as per his leader. The rhythm section even covered Jamal's 'Billy Boy', a jazzed-up folk song that was an earlier hit for Jamal's drum-less trio, on Davis' Milestones. The quintet's drummer, 'Philly' Joe Jones, revealed how 'Miles used to study Jamal.' The trumpeter also covered much of Jamal's repertoire, including his composition 'New Rhumba', one of the stand-out moments on his first collaboration with Gil Evans, Miles Ahead. And... Jamal's version of 'Pavane', it could be argued, contained the seeds of Miles' game-changing 'So What'.
So Ahmad Jamal was a man of influence, who gained a degree of commercial success during the 1950s and the early '60s. His live At The Pershing album of 1958 was a million-seller – another reason, perhaps, why he fell out of favour with certain critics at the time. All of which was possibly not written in the stars when he was either christened Frederick Russell or (according to some) Fritz Jones in his birthplace of Pittsburgh, PA – whence came Earl Hines and Mary Lou Williams; and Errol Garner, whose florid style is echoed in Jamal's work, even in its more fragmentary version. Like his contemporary, Yusef Lateef, our Mr. Jones converted to Islam and took on the familiar Muslim version of his name. There's a nice video of the pair of them playing together at the Paris Olympia in 2012, unusual for the fact that Lateef, celebrated for his mastery of such difficult reed instruments as the oboe than for his voice, sings – movingly – 'Trouble in Mind'.
Another great who converted to Islam is the ubiquitous drummer, Idris Muhammed – who's here in the video I chose sporting his ubiquitous beret. it also features, very unusually for Jamal, the great Trinidadian 'pan-man', Othello Molineaux, much more likely to be found in the company of the Jamaican jazz pianist, Monty Alexander. But it works a treat: the ringing sound of the steel drum beautifully complements Jamal's treble-clef runs and, after a slightly hesitant start, it becomes a marriage made in heaven. Jamal's face is a picture when he recognises around the two-minute mark that the pair of them are beginning to gel.
The prime reason, though, why this particular video seemed to jump out of the screen at me is the song itself. Written in the 1940s and originally associated with the likes of Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra, I confess to falling secretly in love with it when I heard it on a Manhattan Transfer record. Ahmad Jamal was much less abashed about it than I am: it appeared on several of his albums and became effectively his theme tune. He took a somewhat saccharine popular song, similar to the way that John Coltrane did with 'My Favourite Things', and endlessly pulled it to pieces and put it back together again. This particular performance in Poland, with Jamal wearing what the authors of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD describe so eloquently as the 'wise, thoughtful look of an African parliamentarian', seemed most eloquently to illustrate his unobtrusively influential take on modern jazz.
In the liner notes of my cassette copy of a CBS Portrait Masters compilation of Jamal's early work – entitled Poinciana – the fearsomely deep critic Stanley Crouch quotes former Jamal bass player Todd Coolman, who offers the best analysis of the pianist's approach to jazz that I've ever read. Coolman talks about Jamal's superior 'appreciation of the bass line.' '[Bass player Israel Crosby's] lines are so good they could be songs in themselves. Because Ahmad valued that, he was able to create trio music that had more levels of interaction than we are accustomed to hearing.' The video offers no sense of the customary scheme of jazz numbers of an earlier time: statement of theme, individual improvised solos, reprise of theme. Instead, the vamps, the sudden darting runs, the very light touches, the use of tension and silence, the recurring snippets of the main melody, modulations of tone and meter, the false climaxes, all combine to create something singular. Coolman goes on, brilliantly, to suggest that 'what he does not play allows the listener to be involved on a level that was unprecedented. He has such a very refined use of tension and release that he brings off a roller coaster effect by almost seeming to just let things slowly build to these high points of tension that are released just like they are on a roller coaster when you get to the top and the car suddenly plunges down.' Helter skelter!
Jamal was a student of classical music and a lover of Ravel and Debussy's musical impressionism in particular, and Stanley Crouch notes how 'Jamal sought orchestral effects and might turn an individual piece into an idiomatic symphonette.' See what you think as you watch this nine-minute 'idiomatic symphonette'.
Since Jamal continued playing well into his eighties, there are plenty more videos to illustrate an approach to jazz improvisation that influenced not only Miles Davis, but others of the stature of Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, to name but two. When I saw him at the Nord See Jazz Festival in Den Haag, it was the mid '80s. He was a younger man then. Dressed all in white, he came across as a wise sage, almost a mystic. Although I had little idea then that he was also a kind of modest Olympian god in the pantheon of jazz, it was a mesmerising trio performance and I recognised at least that I was in the presence of someone special.
In its recent obituary, the Guardian quoted Jamal's words to one of its journalists. 'You can exercise properly, eat properly – but the most important thing of all is thinking properly. Things are in a mess, and that's an understatement; so much is being lost because of greed.'There are very few authentic, pure approaches to life now. But this music is one of them, and it continues to be.' A very wise sage, indeed.
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