AHMAD JAMAL / “Ahmad Jamal Classics Mixtape”
Source: Breath of Life – (BoL Mixtape – March 22, 2010)
I love Ahmad Jamal’s music, deeply, especially his dynamics, and the way he plays space: percussively, makes silence a drum. Yes, yes he really does know the ju-ju of how to turn silence into a drum. Instead of emphasizing the beats, he hits us with pauses, hesitations, frozen moments and we be swinging too hard to stop so his stops are exclamation marks. Like that.
After Jamal the music changed. You could hear it. Miles took the silence. Trane took the vamps. Red Garland (Miles’ pianist pre-Kind of Blue) used the block chords. McCoy Tyner did the piano percussion and the altered harmonies—go back to those Jazztet sides and the early Tyner trio recordings on Impulse. We could go deeper into this but I think the point is made. Ahmad Jamal is much more important than the critical history has heretofore credited.
This is mystifying in that Jamal was one of the most popular musicians of the late fifties and sixties. His classic Live at the Pershing album was on the Billboard charts for over two years straight—incredible. And although he didn’t write "Poinciana," he practically owns the song, it is so closely identified with Jamal.
So I had planned to do a tribute to Jamal and comb through his catalog of recordings but a funny thing happened along the way, I was waylaid by the perfection of the Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby (bass), Vernell Fournier (drums) trio.
They were an incredible definition of fervently and ferociously swinging softly albeit with the intensity of a big band and the intimacy of a small combo. I am of course a sucker for polyrhythms, especially when mated to tight arrangements, telepathic interplay, and a keen sense of dynamics.
What I ended up doing is featuring that impeccable trio, the gentlemen who virtually defined what a swinging piano trio is supposed to sound like—there has never been a trio to match their dynamic interplay mated to intense swing, and we’re talking over fifty years later.
Just listen to “What’s New,” it was previously unheard of to make a ballad swing that hard! Then they follow with the exquisite tension of “Night Mist Blues,” Crosby’s bass gives us a strut but at a walking pace. He is never in a hurry, he leaves room for his notes to ring and shimmer in all their thickness. In fact, you could focus on the bass and be musically rewarded. Also important to notice is how Founier’s bass drum locks in underneath the bass. All of them seem to instantly know what the other is about to do. While for certain Jamal was the leader, when they are swinging they move as one even though their movements are unpredictable.
Nobody play brushes on skins better than Vernell Fournier, but then he uses a big ride cymbal so that the sound shimmers and he tunes his tom toms low further emphasizing the bottom. And he plays syncopations, constantly, setting up little figures that criss cross the main pulse.
Add to all of that Jamal’s use of the old "play single notes soft" to call attention to the melody and "play chords hard" to give us the harmony—in no other trio was the bass player so often louder than the piano solo—and what you get is a style of playing that might be called sensitive insistence.
Finally, let me get to the closer: three versions of “Poinciana,” Jamal’s signature piece. Before he hired Fournier, Jamal was working in a piano, bass, guitar (Ray Crawford) format. It’s this trio that first recorded “Poinciana” and that’s the first of the three versions. The second features the famous second-line beat laid down with such elegant élan by New Orleans drummer Vernel Fournier. The third version offers a striking development of what had become a well known arrangement with bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Frank Gant. I particularly like Jamal’s playing on the third version.
And this Mixtape dear friends offers a master class on swinging. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy to the highest.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Ahmad Jamal Classics Mixtape Playlist
It’s difficult to keep track of Jamal’s recordings. They go in and out of print, are reissued some times combining two or three albums into a new set (and often dropping one or two numbers to keep within the CD time limits). If you want all the music you just have to keep searching, grab it when you can, and often buy a whole CD just to get one or two cuts that you don’t have. Additionally, some valuable music was recorded in Europe and is rare on this side of the ocean. I’ve tried to locate all of the recordings but some of my sources are out of print and I’m not sure if the versions in the Mixtape are the same as the ones on some of the reissues, so I’m using the out of print album titles.
I recommend three sets that cover most of the important live recordings from the Jamal/Crosby/Fournier trio:
Complete Alhambra & Blackhawk Performances
Complete Live at the Pershing Lounge 1958
Sun Set: Ahmad Jamal At The Blackhawk and The Pershing
01 “I’ll Take Romance / My Funny Valentine”
02 “Green Dolphin Street”
03 “Moonlight In Vermont”
04 “Like Someone In Love”
05 “April In Paris”
06 “What’s New”
07 “Night Mist Blues”
The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings
Sun Set: Ahmad Jamal At The Blackhawk and The Pershing
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