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January 28, 2014 5:49 pm
Ahmad Jamal has been transforming showbiz ephemera into exquisite chamber-jazz miniatures since the late 1950s, spinning dense and detailed narratives out of the most unlikely material – “Little Old Lady”, lead track of the just reissued 1960 album Happy Moods, is a prime example.
Somewhat ahead of his time, Jamal’s solos compressed gospel soul and lounge trio jazz, rolling blues and sparkling bebop lines into a single, emotionally rich improvisation. Back then, the pianist’s occasional wayward thumps and rumbles seemed like passing eccentricities that punctuated flow while his support marked place and time. But now they have become full-blown components of his narrative drive, and his current band, armed with a contemporary sense of rhythm, join in the fray.
The quartet opened with drummer Herlin Riley’s pristine rock decorated by Manolo Badrena’s fastidious percussion – each bell, bird whistle and chime had purpose. Jamal entered with a sustained left-hand rumble, a quiet upper register tinkle and a shimmer of block chords. There were short drum breaks and Reginald Veal’s stubby, funky double bass. Jamal swirled this way and that, alternated melodramatic rumbles with barely audible runs and romantic block chords with arrhythmic clusters before first introducing the band then the seductive minor-key theme of “Autumn Rain”.
Jamal and his remarkable band sustained this level of detail and clarity through a full single set and double encore. Each tune evolved through twist and turn plots in which each musician had a role to play. And his music is extraordinarily graphic. Songbook classics – “Laura”, ghostlike, emerged at a tangent; “My Foolish Heart” came heavily disguised – shifted texture, tempo and style, and Jamal’s groove-based originals had an impressionist, almost tangible sense of place. The title track of his latest album “Saturday Morning” morphed from gentle opening to bustling panorama, “Morning Mist” switched from menace to calm and “Back to the Future” twinned fast choppy funk with impeccable up-tempo swing – drummer Riley doubled momentum with two flicks of his cymbal.
But all this chopping and changing wasn’t left to chance. Jamal occasionally cued tight runs, unison stabs and missing beats with a gently pointed finger, a nod of the head or cupping of hands. But for the most part, the band’s mutual empathy sufficed, a remarkable achievement given the 83-year-old’s mischievous and vivid imagination.
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