Ahmad Jamal | 05.21.09 | New York

Words by: Kevin Schwartzbach | Images by: Nate Kratchman

Ahmad Jamal :: 05.21.09 :: The Blue Note :: New York, NY

Ahmad Jamal :: 05.21.09 :: New York
When Miles Davis sites you as one his biggest influences you know you’re kind of a big deal. Few people alive today can make such a remarkable claim, and fewer still are actually playing shows. So, when legendary jazz pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal announced a run of shows at New York City’s historic jazz club The Blue Note I was keen to jump at the opportunity. Jamal, who is fast approaching the golden age of 80, has been continuously revolutionizing the way jazz musicians treat harmony, rhythm, dynamics and space since his debut release, Ahmad’s Blues, in 1951. And while the playing and composition of Jamal’s past has been cemented in time, he has come quite a long way in the last fifty-eight years.

Listening to Jamal bang away at his piano it was clear that his style and writing has evolved tremendously in relation to his earlier recordings, though hints of his younger work could still be heard in the virtuoso’s playing. “Fitnah,” from Jamal’s latest release It’s Magic, started us off. Jamal’s cleverly varied use of dynamics created a constant flux in the energy level. Plodding crescendos brusquely changed direction, making the tune like an amusement park ride. Jamal quickly proved that the ravages of old age had not gotten the best of him as his still nimble hands skillfully danced about the piano keys. Jamal’s left hand hammered out long, resonating harmonies that strung together in the most ingenious of ways, while his right hand delicately danced through highly emotional melodies. His treatment of harmony has been one of the most influential aspects of Jamal’s writing and playing. The way he takes melodic lines in tandem with their harmonic accompaniment and effortlessly transposes them to foreign keys makes you feel like he’s rapidly transporting you from one dimension to another.

Manolo Badrena :: 05.21.09 :: New York
With an eclectic array of musical trinkets and quirky hairstyle, the eccentric Manolo Badrena (percussion) looked to be a regular inter-dimensional traveler. Best known for his work with Weather Report, Badrena used his assorted toys to beat out peculiar sounds that combined in the most unlikely yet most congenial of ways. The Puerto Rican made good use of what appeared to be a coiled-up vacuum cleaner pipe, blowing into it to produce a shrill melody. Badrena and James Johnson III (drums) pounded out a solo in unison as Jamal casually stood and watched, his eyes coolly shrouded behind his stylish shades. While Johnson laid out the familiar sounds of a drum kit, Badrena tickled our sense of the exotic with all sorts of exquisite noises compiled into a beat.

James Cammack (contrabass) took his first solo of the evening during “Acorn.” With a serene look on his face, Cammack plucked away at his instrument, lush tones subsequently filling the air. A long empty space left by the end of Cammack’s solo was swiftly filled by Jamal’s piano. One of Jamal’s most innovative contributions to the jazz world is his use of space. When Jamal plays you don’t just hear when he’s playing but you also hear when he’s not. The silence between notes becomes as prominent as the notes themselves. And as seemingly endless moments of anxious quiet swirled conspicuously about the room, the notes that sparsely trickled out of Jamal’s piano were devastatingly affective. Linking sections of hurried yet tight and energetic sections in “Mellowdrama” was tranquil stagnation; Jamal let deep notes resonate endlessly while seconds of space that felt like an eternity was intermittently filled with fragments of melodies past. Moving aside the dangling chord of his microphone, Jamal then reached for the brittle notes at the right-most part of his piano – so delicate yet so poignant are those highest notes of a piano.

Ahmad Jamal :: 05.21.09 :: New York
Jamal’s compositions, both past and present, are a mix of diverse auras and ambiances. Softly swinging progressions over which you could imagine Frank Sinatra singing and snapping his fingers are interwoven with immensely energetic grooves that make you want to burst out dancing. Spacious floating harmonies that made you feel like you were swimming through gentle drifting clouds gave way to dissonant tension. But just when you felt the music at its tensest, the quartet released us back into relaxation. Jamal moved in and out of dissonant sonorities in a serendipitous manner, creating moving dissonance out of thin air in completely novel ways.

As skillful as his youthful days many, many years ago, Ahmad Jamal continues to write and play music as transcendently as ever. One gets few opportunities in a lifetime to witness such a legendary figure at work, and hopefully it will not be the last such opportunity, since as long as his fingers will move it can be safely said that Ahmad Jamal will be sharing his timeless gift with the world for years to come.

Ahmad Jamal tour dates available here.

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