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The Unshakable Ahmad Jamal
Listening to the piano master's album The Awakening
Welcome to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions’ and an especially warm welcome to all those who have subscribed in the past week and a half. I hope you find this Substack a place where the joys of music are celebrated and that no matter what type of music you love, there’s a place for it and you here.
This edition’s essay features another of the giants that we have recently lost. Pianist Ahmad Jamal is justly celebrated as one of the most influential and durable musicians of the post-bop era. Perhaps his biggest fan was trumpeter Miles Davis, especially in the mid fifties in which Jamal was almost an auxiliary member of whatever ensemble Davis was playing with.
While I have not explored the entirety of Jamal’s catalogue, I feel confident enough to declare that The Awakening, recorded in 1970 for Impulse! Records, is my favourite of Jamal’s recordings. It’s the focus of the essay below. I hope you enjoy it and will leave a comment sharing what your favourite Ahmad Jamal records are.
On May 1 just after nine o’clock Toronto time, it was announced that singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot had passed away at the age of 84. The news felt like, as it often does, that a golden era is slowly fading to black. Other than Elvis Presley, no one has been as long a constant in my musical life than Lightfoot (I have my dad to thank for giving me a solid musical upbringing) so the news continues to hit hard. Last Labour Day long weekend, I caught Lightfoot’s concert at the Canadian National Exhibition and wrote a long essay about the show and what his music means to me.
I feel like I need to write more about him (indeed, I’m not sure I will able to write anything else until I do so) and so my next essay will offer more thoughts on Lightfoot. Expect it in mid-May.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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For a short period of time—I’d ballpark it from the tail end of the spring of 1955 to the dawn of spring three years later—Miles Davis was under the spell of Ahmad Jamal. From the hiring of pianist Red Garland to join what was to be lauded as the trumpeter’s First Great Quintet to how the use of space became one of the chief principles of his music to the choice of repertoire, Jamal's influence was often all encompassing.
On 1957’s Miles Ahead, the first of three generation-defining collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, Davis took Jamal’s measure literally. On the closing ‘I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone But You,’ a tune with a whipped-cream lightness and which Jamal recorded on his bewitching album Chamber Music of the New Jazz, Davis directly quotes from Jamal’s solo in a performance in which he envelops himself completely in the pianist’s persona.
Of Jamal, Davis wrote in Miles: The Autobiography “[he] knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement.” More succinctly, he once stated “all my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal.” The pianist attributed Davis’ deep-seated interest in his music to his use of contrasts, once saying that it was “my discipline as opposed to my space” that infatuated him. At one point, they lived all but two blocks apart in New York. On Davis’ records, the distance often seemed far closer than that, particularly during that short period of time in the mid-fifties.
Inspiration can be a tricky thing in music. Get it just right and the internalization of another person's art greases the wheels of creatvity just so, and something new and exciting is hatched. Get it askew and imitation is no longer the sincerest form of flattery.
Try as I might to think of another example, for the life of me, I can’t come up with a more direct example of how one artist so profoundly affected another than what occurred between Ahmad Jamal and Miles Davis. It remains a wonderous thing and certainly, through the music Davis made, brought many (me, most certainly) to explore its source and discover for ourselves what made it so wildly intoxicating.
In retrospect, it was probably no accident that Jamal's 1958 live album, At the Pershing: But Not for Me, reached a level of popularity that can only be dreamed of for a jazz album, staying on the Billboard chart for a hair over two years. It had something for just about everyone. Listen to it casually and it's about the most refined cocktail music ever made. Listen more closely and be awed by the complexity within its seemingly simple surface. Marvel at how Jamal melds with his longtime accompanists: bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier to become a united force, and the way the riffs that pepper his version of ‘Music! Music! Music!’, for example, provide an entryway for the jazz novice to become much more than that while also providing sustenance for the jazz buff.
That some would point to Jamal’s art as of the low variety—part of a feeble attempt by some jazz critics to come to terms with why someone like Davis, the personification of everything cool and cloistered about jazz, could be so swept away by music that seemed one degree away from schmaltz—seems to suggest a general aversion to music that appeals to the heart as well as to the head.
A case in point is the sumptuous interpretation on the album of ‘Moonlight in Vermont,’ one of the greatest of standards. Jamal is more paraphrasing than playing the melody here, using a pause in the A section to heighten its inherent romanticism, leaving the listener in a state of sighing ecstasy. A bass pedal part by Crosby adds to the airy mood as does Fournier's punctuations on the bass drum. Jamal’s surface connection to fifties mood music—the milieu of candle lights, a cozy fire and something to get even cozier with—is just that. ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ provides the details of a higher concept, both in terms of Jamal’s preternatural abilities as a pianist but also, as a recent essay by pianist and critic Ethan Iverson illustrates, the musicians with whom he chose to play.
When it was announced that Jamal had passed away on April 16 at the age of 92, most chose to salute him by playing one of two of the many albums he recorded over 70-plus years of music making: the 1958 recording at the Pershing was one, the other was from 12 years later.
By that time, Jamal’s trio included Jamil Nasser (formerly George Joyner) on bass and Frank Napp on drums (an interesting commonality between the two was that both played with Red Garland, the pianist in which Jamal’s influence could arguably be heard the strongest). The album, recorded for Impulse! Records, is The Awakening. It is a touchstone in the piano-trio canon.
The title track, which opens the recording, swiftly establishes a rarefied atmosphere. The opening vamp has Jamal employing a call and response. The call, a hip syncopated figure, is tripled on Nasser’s bass and Gant’s accents on the ride cymbal. It is instantly hummable and inviting. As the song title alludes, it imparts renewal, a recalibration of one’s ears. In short, it is a fanfare announcing that a memorable listening experience is about to unfold. In just over six minutes of music, an encyclopedia of Jamal’s artistry unfolds. There is a groove that is unshakable, a performance rooted in dynamic contrast as well as keyboard runs that appear out of nowhere and travel across the keyboard with the daring of a Phineas Newborn, Jr., and an overall mood that commands one’s complete attention. This Jamal is as pretty as ever but there’s an underlying muscularity, a leaning into the beat that’s both forceful and delicate.
It brings a Rachmaninoff-like flavour to the extended introduction on ‘I Love Music.’ There is a swell to the melody that he returns to repeatedly, giving it a seductive, luminous quality that serves as a signpost to continually orient the listener. Once Nasser and Gant enter about halfway through, there is a beautiful pitter patter to Gant’s brushes as they dance around Jamal's piano.
If ‘I Love Music’ is aggressively melodic, ‘Patterns’ is equally so rhythmically. Gant lays down an unshakable beat and Nasser offers a vigorous, bold counterpoint to Jamal’s percussive chords. The feeling is best described as a cross between Afro-Cuban and the urgency of New York during morning rush hour. No one but Jamal could create such an energetic, intoxicating brew. Twice he breaks up the propulsion with a series of chordal stabs that Gant answers with fills that rumble on the toms and resolve into another of the pianist’s inexhaustible bag of riffs and vamps.
It’s no surprise then that Jamal brings out all that is gorgeous and warm in Herbie Hancock’s ‘Dolphin Dance.’ He lets the notes ring out in the introduction, alights with poised delicacy on the resolution of Hancock’s line—perhaps the element that has most secured its immortality in the jazz canon. Indeed, Jamal never strays too far from the theme but when it’s as good as ‘Dolphin Dance’’s is, why would you?
Conversely, Oliver Nelson’s ‘Stolen Moments,’ another of the repertoire’s lingua franca, spurs Jamal’s adventurous side. The initial thematic statement barely hints at what he has in store as Jamal brings to bear its noirish shadows and late-night reserve. After a brief impressionistic interlude, Jamal, egged on by his bandmates, reaches liftoff for a series of rhythmic and harmonic variations that stray far from Nelson’s framework, a sign that like all great musicians, Jamal’s concept was in a state of continual evolution and refinement.
Songs were no longer vehicles for studiously sensuous patterns and ingeniously humourous hiccups. They were now the wide canvas upon which Jamal painted a scene of propulsive motion. On ‘You’re My Everything,’ Jamal plays some of the most eyebrow-raising runs on The Awakening and ‘Wave,’ already established as one of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s major compositions, ends the album with his most daring excursion. There is a general expectation, I suppose, when preparing to listen to an interpretation of ‘Wave’ that it will be lovely, it will be languid and it will bring to mind afternoons of beach chairs, sunscreen, cool refreshments and even cooler breezes being exhaled from the ocean. Instead, Jamal instills a nervous, jittery energy and for the most part, jettisons the bossa-nova corner for the Afro-Cuban side of town. The A section is belligerent, the bridge is beatific. Interludes throughout make this ‘Wave’ pop.
Ever since I first heard The Awakening in the summer of 2000, it’s something that I’ve reached for every so often (this says something in so much as with any record collector whose collection continues to steadily outgrow the space available to store it, there is a long list of albums that I have neglected far longer than I would ever care to mention). That may have been Jamal’s most potent gift. His music, just like that of other masters we have recently lost—a sign that the sad march of time is slowly increasing at a pace that is inevitable yet despairing all the same—continues to be impossible to shake.