An adventuresome but disciplined musician
MUSIC | Remembering jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal
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The jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal had a standard answer for people who asked him which of his own albums he liked the best: “The next one.”
There won’t be any next ones now.
Jamal, born Frederick Jones, died in April at the age of 92. He left behind an enormous body of recorded work and a reputation as a serious, dignified, adventuresome, and disciplined musician.
“Discipline,” in fact, was his favorite way of referring to what others often called the “open” or “spacious” nature of the trio-formatted music that he played early in his career. In contrast to his flashier contemporaries, he went out of his way to play only what he thought the music called for.
The approach made him famous before he hit 30. His 1958 live album At the Pershing: But Not for Me, the highlight of which was an eight-minute rendition of “Poinciana” generally regarded as definitive, became one of the best-selling jazz albums of its time.
A decade later, he was filling in the spaciousness of his youthful sound. The drummer Frank Gant was plenty busy on the album Tranquility (especially on the Burt Bacharach–Hal David hit “The Look of Love”), and Jamal (especially on his own “Manhattan Reflections”) was playing more busily too.
But the discipline, even if it took different forms, remained. “There might not be the same kind of discipline in my playing these days,” he later told the jazz scholar Len Lyons, but only, he added, “because I’m trying to achieve different things.”
By the 1970s, those different things had come to include electric pianos, orchestras, vocalists, congas, and horns. Some of the albums he released during the decade felt more like experiments than fully realized artistic statements, and purists tended to give them short shrift.
At least twice, however, with Jamal Plays Jamal (1974) and Genetic Walk (recorded in 1975 but not released until 1980), he came up with music every bit as exciting as anything being released by his peers. Had Genetic Walk, which absorbed and fed on funk and R&B without succumbing to them, come out when it was recorded and received a bigger push from 20th Century Fox Records (Jamal’s label at the time), it and not Herbie Hancock’s slinky Head Hunters might have ended up as the keyboard-centric jazz-fusion album of choice.
Live, Jamal continued to prefer simpler formats (trios, quartets, quintets). And for seven of the 10 tracks on 2019’s Ballades, his final recording, he stripped all the way down to solo piano. (His longtime bassist James Cammack accompanied him on the rest.)
Ballades also found him revisiting “Poinciana.” No longer a romp through percolating Latin rhythms, it became a bold yet intimate exploration of latent textures.
He had come full circle, discipline intact.
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