Ahmad Jamal Interview: 16th November 2011

Ahmad Jamal 1997

From time to time over the last two decades years, pianist Ahmad Jamal has been on the receiving end of an overdue ovation he richly deserves. Among the prestigious awards that have come his way have been a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), America’s highest honour for a jazz musician; induction as an Officier de L’Order et des Arts and Lettres in France and a Living Legends Award from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. But it is fair to say this kind of recognition had been conspicuously lacking for the better part of his career, despite being one of jazz’s greatest pianists whose influence has touched musicians of the stature of Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Betty Carter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Jack DeJohnette, Red Garland, Harold Mabern, Monty Alexander, Phineas Newborn Jr. and Ramsey Lewis. 

Turn-up any jazz history book or textbook and you’ll see they have tended to skirt around Jamal’s achievements, with the result that many jazz fans today have only a hazy name-awareness of who he is and fewer still have any idea of his impact on jazz. Even so, many will have heard the sound of Jamal’s piano without realising it. In 1970, he performed Johnny Mandel’s title tune for the soundtrack of the hit movie M.A.S.H. while fans of Clint Eastwood’s films will have heard two Jamal tracks featured on The Bridges of Madison County (1995). And in more recent times, the website www.whosampled.com has listed a remarkable 75 Jamal tracks that have been sampled by the likes of Gang Starr, Quasimoto, DeLa Soul and Jay-Z who sampled Jamal on “Feelin’ It” from his 1996 hit album Reasonable Doubt.

Jamal regards the uneven critical response to his playing in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties with remarkable equanimity. It’s almost as if he knew it would be his fate when told the writer Nat Hentoff way back that critics were never as harsh as he was on himself.  Throughout his life he found a remarkable calmness of spirit through religion and family life that helped him to overcome the obstacles that life threw his way, prompting the late alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to observe: “He seems always at peace, but he never does anything he doesn’t want to, and he doesn’t follow trends.”

He has conscientiously developed and refined his art since his first professional job as a child prodigy in his home town of Philadelphia at the age of eleven. In an age when the prolixity of Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson was setting the pace, he chose to express himself through minimalist means, subtlety and nuance. Not one for straight-ahead 4/4 grooves so popular among hard bop pianists in the fifties and early sixties, Jamal rowed against the tide with grooves could move from from 2 to 4, and back again; where 2 was juxtaposed against 4, or 4 against 2, or changing meters — 4/4 to ¾ and back again was a favourite — a good example is ‘Cherokee’ from At the Pershing: But Not For Me, the song that provided the chord sequence for Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko-Ko’ where Jamal similarly takes the tune at a brisk tempo but effortlessly moves from 4/4 into ¾ for the 16 bar B section and out again into the 4/4 A section.

In 1958, Jamal’s At The Pershing: But Not For Me (Argo) hit the No. 3 spot on on Billboard’s Hot 100, leapfrogging over Elvis Presley’s ‘King Creole’, remaining on the chart for 108 weeks selling over a million copies — and it’s still selling. And just for the record, not even Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme, two of the most popular albums in the history of jazz, did that on release. Jamal’s trio, with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums, recorded a further three live sets after At The Pershing: But Not For Me –– at the Spotlite Club in 1958, at the Alhambra in 1961 and at the Blackhawk in 1962 — that together reveal  a kind of perfection in majestic group interplay. 

These four live sessions appear on The Complete Ahmad Jamal Argo Recordings 1956 to 1962 (Mosaic) and more recently as a series of “complete” double CD packages for each location — Ahmad Jamal Trio Complete Live at the Pershing Lounge 1958 (State of Art Records), Ahmad Jamal Trio Complete Live at the Spotlite Club 1958 (Essential Jazz Classics), Ahmad Jamal Trio The Complete 1961 Alhambra Performances (Essential Jazz Classics) and The Complete 1962 Ahmad Jamal at the Blackhawk (Essential Jazz Classics). Each album was highly influential in the late 1950s and early 1960s and should be among the core recordings of every jazz collection.

Jamal’s live performances reward close listening since they contain a wealth of subtleties and inner detail. One of the first things you notice is how Jamal was a master of melodic development and self editing — “Not overplaying is a rule we should abide by”, he said. Another key aspect of his style was a use of space to a degree unusual in jazz, something widely believed to have influenced Miles Davis. Jamal consciously “played” silence, unusual in a music where the virtuosity of his contemporaries such as Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson was applauded and admired. Often he would tease audiences by playing the first few notes of the melody and then drop out, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks, so to speak, in their imagination, or by creating a space by leaving a cadence unresolved, again leaving the audience to do so in their head. With well known songs he often alluded to the melody through paraphrase or inversion, rather than playing it straight. Throughout these live performances there are many striking examples his mastery of tension and release — sometimes by repeating a note over and over to rack up the tension, or repeating and repeating a simple embellishment. As audiences picked up on this aspect of his style they couldn’t get enough of it — pianist Ramsey Lewis was also playing Chicago in the 1950s, “Many times we would hightail it out to the South Side [after a gig] to see Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier, ” he told Jazz Times. “Having the occasion to go and see him was simply a delight, because he had the room rocking. It was always packed, and it was always a happy feeling at the Pershing when Ahmad was playing there”.

Ever since his early trios, Jamal favoured rootless chords — okay, Nat King Cole was using them as early as 1938 but Cole was an early influence on Jamal’s playing.   This avoided clashing with Crosby’s bass, allowing him freedom to interact with the piano, which was feature of this trio. Not often spoken about was Jamal’s use of richer left hand voicings than the then prevalent Bud Powell school, as the late Hal Galper, the former Cannonball Adderley pianist, told Jazz Times, “Ahmad was the first one to introduce new left-hand voicings on the piano [in the ’50s]. Bud Powell’s left hand voicings were very simple and very open. They allowed the right hand a lot of freedom. Ahmad Jamal had more notes in his left hand. They were richer left-hand voicings, which meant you had to play more disciplined lines in the right hand. Everybody was flipping over these new voicings, like, ‘What are those?'”

His mischievous and often humorous use of quotes were often clever and sophisticated, for example quoting Basie’s ‘April in Paris’ and Ellington’s ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’ on ‘Time on My Hands’ from the Alhambra set. Jamal delighted in discursive introductions that seemed to be lining the listener up for one tune, ‘The Sound of Music’ on the Blackhawk set, for example, only to launch into something quite different and unexpected, in this case ‘Like Someone in Love’. His use of dynamics, especially unexpected loud staccato chords during a pianissimo passage, could be as surprising as anything in Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, but what could be especially mesmerising was the occasional use of a “fade” ending in real time, such as ‘Snowfall’ on the Alhambra set or ‘Autumn Leaves’ on the Spotlite set. On the latter Crosby and Fournier slowly decrease in volume until they become inaudible, a remarkable feat of dynamic control that solicits a delighted laugh from a member of the audience. You can just imagine him shaking his head in amazement.

Jamal frequently modified the harmonies of songs, often on the spur of the moment, necessitating sharp ears from Crosby on bass, while Crosby himself could act as agent provocateur by introducing extended harmonies in his line in order to get Jamal to follow. Jamal also broke open song forms with episodes of static harmony as a way of taking his improvisation in new and unexpected directions. For example, on the second chorus of Jamal’s ‘Squatty Roo’ from the 1958 Spotlite sessions,  Jamal replaces the sixteen bar AA section of the ternary AABA song with a pedal point in F so that his return to the B section truly makes it a “release.” Another example was during “Surrey with a Fringe on Top” from At the Pershing: But Not For Me where Jamal follows the AABA form, but his improvisation  departs from the changes on the A sections in favour of a pedal point in F. On other occasions he might depart entirely from a songs changes with a period of static harmony and then cue a return to it later. A striking example of this is his version of the 32 bar ‘Autumn Leaves’ on Ahmad Jamal Trio: Complete Live at the Spotlite Club 1958, where he breaks open the song’s AABC construction with an extended vamp in Eb for his improvisation — later emulated by Herbie Hancock and the rhythm section of Davis’s quintet in their September 1964 version of the same tune on Miles in Berlin, albeit with Shorter remaining on the songs form and changes during his solo, but with the rhythm section maintaining a polyrhythmic vamp in Eb, playing 3-against-4, with everyone resolving on the ‘one’ of the next chorus.* What is particularly arresting on the Spotlite version of the song is how, towards the end of his second vamp (having earlier returned to the song’s structure and changes before departing a second time from them), Jamal uses a rolling chordal riff that would be” borrowed” in modified form as the introduction to the Miles Davis composition ‘All Blues’ on the album Kind of Blue — had Davis heard Jamal use this riff before on ‘Autumn Leaves’? Lesser artists steal, as the saying goes, but great artists borrow.

A feature of Jamal’s trio with Crosby and Fournier was their cohesiveness that depended on a high level of interdependence on each other’s finely balanced role within the ensemble. Often Jamal would cede much space to Crosby and Fournier, who would respond with playing of great clarity and economy. Indeed, one of the highlights of the live Argo albums is the resourcefulness of Jamal, Crosby and Fournier in generating maximum swing through maximum economy; each musician acutely aware of precisely what was needed from moment to moment — a collective expression of maximum minimalism that represented the epitome of high intensity swing at low intensity volume, “Anybody can play loudly,” the pianist once asserted, “It is much more difficult to play softly while swinging at that same level of intensity you can get playing fortissimo.”

In bassist Israel Crosby, Jamal had a player of enormous ability. Crosby had made his recording debut at the tender age of sixteen in November 1935 in a Gene Krupa ensemble made up of members of the then Benny Goodman Orchestra, including Goodman himself. Blessed with perfect time, perfect pitch and a facility on his instrument few could match, in live performance he often appeared in constant dialogue with Jamal. On all four live sessions, Crosby is using gut strings and in an interview with Loren Schoenberg in 1985, Fournier said Crosby did not use an expensive bass; the one he uses on these tracks was worth $500, Fournier pointing out that whatever bass Crosby picked up, he was able to get a full, majesties tone — he didn’t need an expensive bass, indeed on these four live sets Crosby played totally acoustically — no amp! This is a key indicator to the internal balance of this group — for an acoustic bass to have such prominence, Jamal and Fournier had to be constantly aware that the group dynamics should be focused around and often under the sound of the acoustic bass.

In Fournier Jamal had a drummer equally blessed with a strong sense of time and an impressive technique, albeit gloved in favour of precision and understatement. Originally from New Orleans, he is credited with bringing the New Orleans Second Line style to contemporary jazz, for example, the masterful groove he sets up for ‘Poinciana’, Jamal’s hit single from At The Pershing: But Not For Me. Here, Fournier plays in double time against Jamal’s half time using a drumstick and a mallet, creating a hypnotic rhythm that for years many musicians swore had been produced by two drummers. Fournier tuned his snare and tom-toms for this performance — they were calf heads and notoriously fickle to temperature change — but here they are perfectly in tune to finish a phrase started by Jamal that recurs from time to time in the arrangement. Of special interest is the way he sustained this complex groove over the duration of the performance — some eight minutes — with such precision, modifying the rhythm from chorus to chorus — first chorus left hand on hi-hat, second, left hand on crash cymbal (used here as a ride cymbal), and on the final chorus the extent to which the original rhythm has evolved, now using rimshots with his mallet, is starkly highlighted by his return to the original rhythm that opened the performance. All the while through this performance his immaculate timekeeping remained supple enough to interact with Jamal without missing a heartbeat. It is hardly a cause for wonder that he considered his performance on ‘Poinciana’ his best on record, yet he was a master at creating such compelling, swaying grooves, for example, ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Stomping’ at the Savoy’ on the Spotlight set, or ‘We Kiss In A Shadow’ from the Alhambra set. He was also a consummate performer with brushes, possessing a flawless technique equal to any rhythmic challenge, illustrated by his precise yet swinging brush articulation on ‘Woody n’ You’ from At The Pershing: But Not For Me that elides into a beguine rhythm leading into the final chorus. As Jamal would later say, “I’ve had some spectacular players down the years. Historic players — Vernel Fournier, Israel Crosby. Vernel Fournier was perhaps the most imitated drummer in the world”.

In truth, close listening to Jamal’s live performances between 1958 and 1962 there are countless gems of subtlety and creativity from both Crosby and Fournier that constitute minor miracles of accompaniment — the bass figure that Crosby effortlessly articulates in the Spotlight version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ that sets a groove around which Fournier expands, or their majestic performance on ‘Taboo’ from the same set where Crosby plays a maraca with the lower fingers of his right hand will simultaneously plucking the bass, a feat of dexterity that does not miss a beat or a shake of the maraca — this an extraordinary feat in itself — while Fournier’s samba based rhythm generates considerable heat with timbale-like fills executed on his snare (snare off) and side tom-tom. As The New York Times has pointed out, Jamal’s trio provided “some of the most modern and far reaching” small group experimentation in jazz.

That Jamal’s influence has continued to be felt in jazz can be heard  in a spontaneous  tribute by Keith Jarrett’s “Standards” Trio on ‘Autumn Leaves’ on  CD3 of At the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings (ECM). Here, Jarrett  breaks open the tune with a vamp half way through the performance, a la Jamal, as DeJohnette  elides into a paraphrase of Fournier’s catchy rhythmic groove from ‘Poinciana’, and together the trio produces a performance that is the highlight of Jarrett’s Blue Note set of recordings. As the pianist Hal Galper, who played with Cannonball Adderley among others, noted, “Ahmad’s major contributions have yet to be recognised.” That was in 1999. It still holds good. 

Ahmad Jamal 1997

Jamal’s recording career began on October 25, 1951 for Okeh label with a trio that had either Israel  Crosby or Eddie Calhoun on bass and the underrated guitarist Ray Crawford. They show that even at the age of 21, when he first recorded for the label, he had already formed a distinctive style. One piece the trio recorded was a striking version of ‘Billy Boy’ that caused a stir within musician’s circles. Several pianists lifted Jamal’s arrangement intact when they recorded the tune, most famously Oscar Peterson on The Trio (1961), Red Garland on the Miles Davis album Milestones (1958) and Monty Alexander’s live performance of the composition at the Montreux Festival in 1976. Miles Davis was sufficiently inspired by Jamal’s playing to record several tunes first recorded by Jamal on Okeh or Argo, often copying in part or whole Jamal’s arrangements including, ‘Old Devil Moon’, ‘Will You Still Be Mine’, ‘Surrey with the Fringe on Top’, ‘Girl in Calico’, ‘Green Dolphin Street’, ‘New Rhumba’, ‘All of You’, ‘Autumn Leaves’, “Love for Sale” and ‘Ahmad’s Blues’ — “I live for the next Ahmad Jamal album to come out,” Davis said at the time. Indeed, when Jamal’s trio was playing the Pershing lounge in January 1958, Miles Davis was playing in a downstairs room and as Jamal recalls, “He was able to come upstairs and see my group”.

Perhaps the most influential of the Okeh sides was Jamal’s version of ‘Pavanne’, taken from the second movement of Morton Gould’s 2nd American Symphonette, and recorded on 25 October 1955. About halfway through the piece, Crawford plays the secondary theme (as written), an eight bar melody, which he repeats up a semitone for another eight bars. Jamal supports this with a Dm7 vamp followed by an Ebm7 vamp, presenting the listener with the harmonies that would underpin the A and B sections of ‘So What’, which Miles Davis would record three and a half years later (in a 32 bar AABA form). John Coltrane would later take Gould’s secondary theme (as played by Crawford), and using the same harmonies and form of ‘So What’ would call the piece ‘Impressions’.

The rhythmic cohesion of Jamal’s trio with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums was something Miles Davis wanted from his own group, even taking members of his quintet along to listen to Jamal, whose influence was all too clear on Davis quintet recordings for Prestige in the 1950s, such The Musings of Miles, where some of Davis’s arrangements were notre-for-note copies of Jamal arrangements. However, while Davis’ debt to Jamal’s style cannot be precisely calculated it certainly went deeper than song titles and arrangements. On Davis’ 1957 collaboration with Gil Evans, Miles Ahead, not only do Davis and Evans pay tribute to Jamal by closely following his arrangement of his own original, ‘New Rhumba’, but the striking treble forte brass intro is a favourite phrase the pianist often interpolated into his live performances of the period, for example, on ‘No Greater Love’ from the At the Pershing: But Not For Me set or ‘The Party’s Over’ from the Alhambra set. According to Hal Galper, “Miles kind of overshadowed Ahmad. He didn’t give Ahmad enough credit.” Similarly, Bill Evans, on leaving Davis had clearly listened to the interaction between Jamal, Crosby and Fournier and when he formed his own with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian and developed an even more discursive/interactive relationship than Crosby and Fournier — there is a significant difference in the rhythmic approach of his new trio and previous albums such as Everybody Digs Bill Evans and New Jazz Connections.

Ahmad Jamal Quartet in 1986 with James Cammack (b), Herlin Riley (d), Mardoquco Figueroa (perc)

The trio with Crosby and Fournier was wound up in 1962 – “George Shearing immediately hired them”, said Jamal. They both appear on The George Shearing Trio Jazz Moments album for the Capitol label, a measure of how highly the duo were valued that Shearing broke for a moment with his beloved quintet to feature their playing. However, Crosby would die unexpectedly a matter of weeks later on August 11, 1962 from a stroke. He was just 43 years of age.  Meanwhile Jamal concentrated on his restaurant, performing at Ahmad Jamal’s Alhambra, but the venture eventually folded. Then followed a change of record label in 1965: “I went from Chess to Impulse! I moved to New York and one of my agents did a deal with Impulse!”. However, during the Seventies, jazz was undergoing profound change and Jamal was finding difficulty positioning his music. “I have had some moments when I backed off and didn’t work at all. I had a record company from 1969 to 1972, and that was a period of time when I was trying to stay home and get out of the touring end of it.” One session from 1971, Live at Oil Can Harry’s documents this period of transition. In 1972 he experimented with a Fender Rhodes piano (Outertimeinnerspace and his 1972 set at the Montreux Jazz Festival Freeflight), providing a valuable resource of samples for DJ’s in the age of Rap. Jamal emerged in the 1980s back on acoustic piano, recording for independents Kingdom Jazz and Black Lion before signing with Atlantic when it was clear the period of transition was behind him with albums such as Rossiter Road, Crystal, Pittsburgh and Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival 1985.

Ahmad Jamal in 1986

After a period with Telarc, Jamal came under the wing of producer Francis Dreyfuss in France where some of his finest latter-day work is to be found, including the D’jango D’or winning The Essence. However, on January 4, 2013 the company ceased its operations and its catalog was absorbed by BMG Rights Management Group, but by then Jamal had already made the move to Harmonia Mundi’s Jazz Village label, releasing Blue Moon on 6 February 2012, followed by Saturday Morning: La Buissonne Studio Sessions (2013), Marseille (2016) and in 2019, at the age of 89, came Ballade, a rare solo album.

In conversation Jamal projects serenity, often leavened by a mischievous wit revealing of his sharp mind. When I interviewed him in 2011 he was in his eighty-second year, and the pianist, once identified as a “coming great” by Art Tatum when he was just fourteen years-old, was about to release his then latest album Blue Moon, which subsequently garnered a Grammy nomination and rave reviews in the French press — Jazz Village is a French label owned by Harmonia Mundi — “Magistral!” Jazz News, “Un autre chef-d’œuvre, simple, majestueux et tendre”, Les Inrockuptibles, “Une merveille intemporelle”, Jazz Magazine. In a discography that numbers well over fifty albums, Jamal was in no doubt that this album was something special. “I think it is going to be of the calibre of 628 [Argo LP-628 But Not for Me]”, he said and this wasn’t intended as mere hyperbole. Many of the hallmarks that took Argo LP-628 to Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958 are present on Blue Moon. The masked virtuosity that enabled him to compress powerful emotion into suave yet economical statements; his mastery of “playing” silence to maximum effect; the architechtonic nature of his arrangements with crisp, lean melodic twists; unexpected dynamic shifts from bold crescendos to barely audible diminuendos; his ad hoc use of vamps (or pedal points);  and finally, a masterful use of tension and release — which, incidentally, he understood better than anyone else in jazz. 

The surprise of Blue Moon is, well, ‘Blue Moon.’ Not only is it the most performed song in the Rodgers and Hart canon (everyone from Presley to the Platters has recorded it), but it also has a chord progression that’s the most used in in pop and jazz ( I – vi7 – ii7 – V ). But the genius of Jamal is what he does with it. Typically, he takes a highly original approach, customising the song into an arrangement that allows him to “own” the song in a way that reflects his very individual musical personality. In a neat piece of symmetry given his reference earlier to Argo LP-628,  the album closes with the Dizzy Gillespie composition “Woody’n You”, a composition he performed on But Not For Me,  recorded 16 – 17 January 1958. It is fair to say that the energy, power and drama he brought to the performances on Blue Moon sounded as if it had  been recorded by someone half his age, and as if to underline the point that his musical quest was by no means over he pointed out that, “I am still developing. I am discovering every day different colours and dynamics of music and the different ways of exploring chordal structure, I’m still discovering every day. I tread my own path.” One of jazz’s true originals, he certainly did that.

  • Thanks to Bill Kirchner for pointing this out

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© Stuart Nicholson 2020.