Ahmad Jamal Does It Again
In case you hadn’t heard already, Ahmad Jamal has a new album out on Harmonia Mundi’s Jazz Village imprint, titled Blue Moon. On one level, it raises the question of whether or not to expand on that: what else is there to be said about this guy that hasn’t been said already (“I get all my inspiration from him” – Miles Davis)? Perennially vital, lyrical, third-stream pianist with a prestigious place on Improvisation Avenue between Errol Garner and Cecil Taylor? If you’ve followed jazz anytime over the last half-century, all that’s old news. And there’s a good chance that most of the people who would conceivably want this album already have it. What makes this album different is that it’s essentially a latin jam session, a neat spin on a bunch of old tunes from the movies along with three Jamal originals.
A couple of the tracks here are one-chord jams in the sense that Indian ragas are one-chord jams: Jamal doesn’t need chord changes to animate them, awash in rippling neoromantic cascades, rhythmically devious staccato clusters, bright block chords, hitting the chorus head-on when least expected. The ten-minute title track sets the tone, Jamal’s darkly majestic interludes eventually trading on and off with Reginald Veal’s hypnotic bass riffage until they finally acknowledge that it’s the old doo-wop standard they’ve been messing with. Likewise, their version of Invitation coalesces slow and starlit into drummer Herlin Riley’s slinky clave groove, Jamal alternating big sustained ripples with staccato incisions and then taking it out as quietly and gracefully as he came in. And Gypsy unwinds slowly over a booming bass pedal note, Jamal leading the bass, drums and Manolo Badrena’s marvelously subtle, incisive percussion as he does throughout many of the tracks here, matter-of-factly introducing a bit of a fugue and then setting off some brief fireworks with the drums.
Jamal’s own I Remember Italy begins with a glittering, Asian tinge and comfortably settles into a lyrical, singing mode, pushing the boundaries of the melody further and further out until the steady rhythm section pulls everything together again: it’s a genuinely lovely ballad and the most trad thing on the album. A bolero, Autumn Rain sets Jamal’s apprehensively majestic splashes of color over a funk groove, then leaps away, spiraling over the wash of the cymbals. Their version of Laura pushes the beat with a tense rubato, bass again pacing through the raindrops scattered by Jamal’s leaps, bounds and a wonderfully syncopated, pointillistic upper-register interlude that circles around a simple fifth interval.
The aptly titled, bracingly modal Morning Mist has more Asian inflections, with a biting samba-tinged melody emerging from the torrents, submerging and resurfacing, hard-hitting rhythmic insistence switching on and off with Jamal’s polyrhythmic, rolling attack. The album winds up with the funky This Is the Life, Jamal coloring the attractive, remarkably accessible tune with pools of glittering, majestic sound, and then Woody n’You, a shuffling ballad disguised as tropicalia, perfectly capsulizing the appeal of this album, and Jamal in general: straightforward melody with an irrepressibly bright improvisational flair. 81 years young and no less inspiring than he was sixty years ago.
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