AHMAD JAMAL / “Poinciana”
I used to feed quarters into a juke box at Xavier University the summer of 1963 when I was taking a judo class there. Invariably I would play Ahmad Jamal—either “Poinciana” or “Secret Love” (or was it “We Kiss In A Shadow”?). In fact “Poinciana” was Jamal’s signature song—the Live at the Pershing album containing “Poinciana” stayed on the best-selling charts for 108 weeks, which was an unprecedented accomplishment in the late Fifties. In any case, it was the drummer, New Orleanian Vernel Fournier who really, really appealed to me. I adored the rhythms—those grooves over which Jamal tickled the ivories. A half a decade later, while in the Army, I became a drummer and that distinctive “Poinciana” beat was one that I attempted to master. Almost twenty years after discharge, I was producing jazz concerts, radio programs and records; one very memorable recording session was Germaine Bazzle & Friends with the mercurial James Black on drums. One of the tunes Germaine chose was “Secret Love,” which I reflexively associated with Ahmad Jamal. During the session James explained to me that he was using a modified Second Line beat and, of course, I immediately thought of the 1958 recording of “Poinciana.” Yeah, that’s what I had liked about Jamal’s version of “Poinciana”: the drums, the beat. But there was much more to Jamal than just employing a New Orleans beat. There was also Jamal’s minimalist approach. He would make one note suffice where many others used three or four; additionally, he had an astoundingly fresh harmonic sense, so he made standards sound brand new, as if you had never heard them before, except the majority of his repertoire were tried and true chestnuts. Only years and years later was I able to understand how the Pittsburg-born (July 2, 1930) and Chicago-based Ahmad Jamal had taken the swing style of Count Basie and moved it to a post-Korean War era of modern jazz. Jamal had that same sense of economy in his playing, plus Jamal had figured out a way to arrange for a trio so that the three instruments sounded positively orchestral—the bass judiciously plucking notes setting up a firm foundation; the syncopated drums pulsing beneath the bass; and, Jamal’s piano floating on top. And man, were they in synch with each other. Pausing and turning on a dime, as if it were second nature. I particularly loved how they would work a rhythm vamp. I wished I could have seen them live. Much as Basie had defined big band swing, Ahmal Jamal’s music was the very definition of a swinging, modern jazz trio. Miles Davis was particularly fond of Jamal’s playing, and less than a decade later would update the Jamal formula of rhythm vamps, adapting Jamal’s innovations first to the classic jazz quintet of trumpet, sax, piano, bass and drums, and later to jazz fusion. Ahmad Jamal is a significant link in the evolution of jazz. —Kalamu ya Salaam Something special... "Poinciana" is definitely something special. Even if you hadn't mentioned it, anyone from New Orleans would've recognized those drums right away. That's defiinitely a Second Line beat. A little smoothed out, and slightly more sophisticated than on the street, but it's Second Line. The combination of the drumming and Ahmad's very spare style (which sounds nothing like the usual accompaniment for Second Line music) is wonderful. Wanted to mention too that "Poinciana" reminds me of some of the tracks on Wynton's Majesty of the Blues album. That's the only other music I know that has a very authentic Second Line feel to the drums, combined with top-level jazz instrumentation. —Mtume ya Salaam
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