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 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. Not one to make it easy for the critics he never sought to monopolise a relentlessly swinging 4/4, the sine qua non of hard bop pianists during the 1950s, rowing against the tide by abruptly changing meters (4/4 to ¾ was a favourite or moving from 2 to 4, and back again, or juxtaposing 2 against 4, or 4 against 2). 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. No wonder the critics were confused. 

They were even more confused when his 1958 album At The Pershing: But Not For Me (Argo) stayed on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for 108 weeks, charting as high as No. 3, leapfrogging over Elvis Presley’s ‘King Creole’ and 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 – 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.

Make no mistake, these live albums had a lot happening on them, but sometimes you had to probe beneath the surface to discover their subtleties — his conception  of independent roles for bass and drums within a piano trio and his use of rootless chords — okay, Nat King Cole was using them as early as 1938 but Cole was an early influence on Jamal’s playing —  so as not to clash with a more mobile role for Israel Crosby was highly influential among jazz pianists. So too his use of richer left hand voicings than the then prevalent Bud Powell school (that also had fellow piano players following suit). Jamal would often break open song forms with an ostinato, a precursor of time-no-changes, where he took the music in surprising improvisational directions before returning to the original song form. Often, he didn’t play the melody of a song, but allude to it by paraphrase or melodic inversion (often diatonic) while his use of dynamics, especially unexpected loud staccato chords in a pianissimo passage, could be as surprising as anything in Haydn’s Symphony No. 94. Jamal’s inspired use of chord substitutions were as smart as they were unexpected and he was a master of melodic development and self editing — “Not overplaying is a rule we should abide by”, he said — in fact, the most obvious aspect of his style was a use of space to a degree unusual in jazz up to that point. He had a sense of humour too, often alluding to other songs in his music rather than full-blown quotes. That Jamal’s influence has continued to be felt 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. Here, Jarrett  breaks open the tune with a vamp half way through the performance, a la Jamal, and DeJohnette  elides into a paraphrase of Fournier’s catchy rhythm from ‘Poinciana’, Jamal’s hit single from At The Pershing from 1958, and together the trio lock into a groove 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. 

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 form 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 this secondary theme (as played by Crawford), and using the same harmonies and form of ‘So What’ would call the piece ‘Impressions’.

Legend has it that Davis took members of his band along to listen to Jamal, whose influence was all too clear on The Musings of Miles from 1955. However, while Davis’ debt to Jamal’s style cannot be precisely calculated it certainly went deeper than song titles and arrangements. The rhythmic lightness and melodic understatement of Jamal’s trio from 1956-62 with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums was something he urged his own rhythm section to emulate, particularly Garland. But it was not only Garland whom Davis urged to listen to Jamal. Bill Evans, on leaving Davis had listened to Jamal’s trio with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums, and his trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian had a quite different interactive role to the bass and drums on earlier work such as Everybody Digs Bill Evans and New Jazz Connections which present “piano with bass and drums accompaniment”. With LaFaro and Motian the dominance of the piano is reduced, and in part inspired by Jamal’s trio, they developed an even more discursive/interactive relationship between piano, bass and drums.

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.”

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

Jamal’s use of silence was particularly arresting, often letting several beats pass without playing, a high-risk technique that few improvisers dared employ and clearly impressed Davis. “Some people call it space, but I call it discipline,” asserts Jamal. This disciplined use of space could even see him abruptly laying-out when playing a melody, leaving it to be “played” in the listener’s subconscious – clever, amusing maybe, but he’s right, the mind actually does fill-in the blank spaces!

Jamal frequently imposed his own forms onto a tune including episodes of static harmony and this clearly fascinated Davis, who through George Russell and Bill Evans was considering modes as an alternative basis for improvisation. For example, on the second chorus of Jamal’s ‘Squatty Roo’ with the trio 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 is “Surrey with a Fringe on Top” from But Not For Me, where Jamal follows the AABA form, but for his improvisation  departs from the changes on the A sections in favour of a pedal point in F. But perhaps the most striking example of imposing his own form on a song is his version of the 32 bar ‘Autumn Leaves’,  originally on Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal but also available on CD on Ahmad Jamal Trio: Complete Live at the Spotlite Club 1958, where he exploits the song’s unusual AABC construction as a springboard for his own form, inserting an extended vamp in Eb for his improvisation — 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, but with the rhythm section, against a 3-against-4, maintaining a polyrhythmic vamp in Eb 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 (after his second return to the theme), he uses a rolling chordal riff that would appear 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’? Interesting, given that the Spotlite version was recorded in 1958 and Kind of Blue was was recorded on March 2 and April 22, 1959 and that Davis once said he could barely wait for the release of the next Jamal album…

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, 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 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 and some of his finest latter-day work is to be found on the Dreyfuss label, 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 a 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” that first appeared 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.