‘Stuart Nicholson’s in-depth analysis of the original Ahmad Jamal Trio, as released on Argo LPs and , more completely, on our Mosaic box set. Ahmad’s harmonics, inventions and re-arrangements echoed subliminally through the modern jazz innovators of the fifties and into the mainstream modern language’. MICHAEL CUSCUNA, Jazz Record Producer and Reissue Director of Blue Note Records, Leading Discographer of Blue Note Records and three times Grammy winner.
Ahmad Jamal’s recording career under his own name began on October 25, 1951 for Okeh label with a trio that had Eddie Calhoun on bass (later Israel Crosby), and the underrated Ray Crawford on guitar. They show that even at the age of 21, when he first recorded for the label, he had already formed a distinctive approach to jazz piano that though modelled on the Nat King Cole Trio, was already finding its own path. Jamal’s version version of ‘Billy Boy’ caused a stir within musician’s circles, with several pianists lifting Jamal’s arrangement intact when they recorded the tune, most famously pianist Red Garland on the Miles Davis album Milestones (1958) and on Garland’s own album Red Garland Revisited (1969), Oscar Peterson on The Trio (1961), and an exuberant performance by Monty Alexander at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. The Jamal original ‘Ahmad’s Blues’, recorded in May 1952, also became feature for Red Garland while with the Miles Davis Quintet, appearing on Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige), recorded in 1956.
Perhaps the most influential of all Jamal’s Okeh sides was his version of ‘Pavanne’, taken from the second movement of Morton Gould’s 2nd American Symphonette, recorded on 25 October 1955. About halfway through the piece, Crawford plays Gould’s secondary theme, 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 later underpin the A and B sections of the 32 bar AABA composition ‘So What’ from the 1959 album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. In 1961, John Coltrane would also turn to ‘Pavanne’, taking the eight bar melody of the secondary theme (as played by Crawford in Jamal’s trio recording) and, using the same harmonies and form of ‘So What’, call the piece ‘Impressions’.
By May 1955, Israel Crosby had joined the trio and the trio’s finest album to date, Chamber Music of the New Jazz (Argo) followed, recorded later that year. By 1956, drummer Walter Perkins had replaced guitarist Ray Crawford, who wanted to try his luck in New York. Jamal now had a regular piano, bass and drum configuration with Perkins adjusting his style of playing to fit Jamal’s two-beat grooves. As drummer Kenny Washington, in the liner notes to The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions 1956-62, pointed out, Perkins adapted the two beat rhythm Crawford played on the body of his guitar to the drums — a technique Crawford used frequently, for example during the May 23, 1955 recording Chamber Music of the New Jazz, on ‘All of You’, ‘I Don’t Want To Be Kissed (By Anyone But You)’, and ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’.
Drummer Vernel Fournier replaced Perkins in 1957 during Jamal’s extended residency at the Pershing Lounge, located inside Chicago’s Pershing Hotel on East 64th Street, west of South Cottage Grove Avenue. Fournier picked-up where Perkins had left off in adopting to the kind of grooves Jamal preferred; hailing from New Orleans where embellished two-beat rhythms were a part of the culture, Fournier not only had no trouble adapting to Jamal’s rhythmic approach, but he also added something extra. As Jamal would later recall, “We stayed there a long time. And that’s a great thing for young musicians to have a room where they develop”. And compositions did indeed develop, usually with very little, if any, direction from Jamal, who said, “they just had a built-in concept of what to do”. The most famous example of an arrangement evolving in this way was ‘Poinciana’ that grew into a performance of almost eight minutes. By now, Jamal had signed with the Argo label, a subsidiary of Leonard Chess’ Chess label, and by the end of 1957, the pianist felt the time was right to record his new trio, but he insisted it be done live. In mid-January 1958, recording engineer Malcolm Chisholm set his tape machine up in the Pershing Lounge to record the trio in live performance. The album that resulted, 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’ and remained 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 five studio sessions during its lifetime between 1958 to 1962, but it’s the four live sessions that provide this trio’s most vivid life studies — the highly successful But Not For Me set recorded at Chicago’s Pershing Lounge between January 16 and 17, 1958; at the Spotlite Club, Washington, D.C., recorded between September 5 and 6, 1958; at the Alhambra, Chicago recorded in June 1961 and at the Blackhawk, San Francisco, recorded between January 31 and February 1, 1962. The studio and live sessions are all collected on The Complete Ahmad Jamal Sessions 1956 to 1962 on the Mosaic label which was released in 2010, but is now sadly out of print, although secondhand copies can found for sale on the internet or via specialist dealers.
In more recent times, and filling the void, the four live sessions have appeared on a series of “complete” double CD packages — 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 set includes all the known material recorded at these locations, plus bonus material such as 45 rpm single versions of studio recorded tracks, and from the Pershing set an edited ‘Poinciana’ (which lasts for 8 minutes 8 seconds in its original version) that was originally released as a 45 rpm single plus Jamal’s 1955 version of the song, recorded with his trio with Ray Crawford on guitar.
Each album of these albums in their original form were highly influential in late 1950s and early 1960s jazz and should be among the core recordings of every jazz collection. They reward close listening since they contain a wealth of subtleties and inner details which slowly reveal themselves with repeated listening. Trumpeter Randy Sandke has pointed out that jazz improvisation demands that, “you have to be able to hear what you’re doing before you do it. Otherwise, you’re just guessing, and all of the greats knew exactly what they were doing. No searching for the right note; just playing the right note, and with certainty. The greater the artist, the more control over all aspects of music: sound; articulation; phrasing; rhythm; time; and pitch”, and this was certainly a characteristic of Jamal’s playing, and something that was much admired by his fellow pianists. “There are things I have in my head I’d like to do”, said pianist Randy Weston, “But I don’t necessarily go to the piano and do it. I may try to do it; it may happen, it may not happen. But with him [Jamal], like Tatum and people of that caliber, you get the feeling he can play anything he thinks of, and do it again in that very relaxed way. And that spirit is always there, and always swinging, man”.
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 once said. Another key aspect of his style was his 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 — a classic example is ‘Secret Love’ from the Spotlight sessions — or leaving a cadence unresolved, again leaving space for the audience to resolve it internally.
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 sophisticated grooves that could move from from 2 to 4, and back again; where 2 was juxtaposed against 4, or 4 against 2. He delighted in changing meters — 4/4 to ¾ and back again was a favourite, such as ‘Cherokee’ from the Pershing set, a song that earlier provided the chord sequence for Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko-Ko’, where Jamal similarly takes the tune at a brisk tempo yet effortlessly moves from 4/4 into ¾ for the 16 bar B section and out again into the 4/4 16 bar A section, and, from the same set, a cheeky interpolation of ¾ towards the end of ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ that passes in a blink of an eye.
Rather than play the melody of a well-known song, Jamal often alluded to the melody through paraphrase or inversion, teasing the audience by making them think and therefore become more engaged in the music. 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 phrase, or his mischievous yet perfectly judged false endings. Like a mutually intelligible language, audiences picked up on various aspects of his style and understood it — when pianist Ramsey Lewis was playing Chicago in the 1950s, he said that, “Many times we would hightail it out to the South Side [after a gig] to see Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier. 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 earlier Okeh trio, 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?’”
Jamal’s use of quotes were clever and sophisticated, for example juxtaposing Basie’s ‘April in Paris’ and Ellington’s ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’ on ‘Time on My Hands’ from the Alhambra set. While on the one hand it might be argued they were used to keep his night club audiences engaged by mischievously adding something they could relate to within the context of his improvisations, they were always done with tongue-in-cheek good humour, as were his discursive introductions (like his fellow Pittsburghian pianist Errol Garner) that often lined the listener up for one tune, for example, ‘The Sound of Music’ on the Blackhawk set, only to launch into something quite different and unexpected, in this case ‘Like Someone in Love’. Equally, Jamal liked to toy with audience expectations with false endings – for example, and again on the Blackhawk set, he seems to have reached the conclusion of ‘April in Paris’, heading into the familiar coda based on the “Wild Bill” Davis arrangement of the tune for Count Basie — an unexpected ‘crossover hit’ in 1955 appearing on the Pop Chart at 28 — complete with the “One More Time” coda repeat, only to use it as a jumping off point for another improvisation. As pianist Randy Weston has noted, “He has that other element, which is true of all our jazz greats, that sense of humour in music. He’d do things to make you laugh”.
The way Jamal used dynamics as a central aspect of framing many songs was unusual for jazz at the time, or any other period of jazz. He frequently contrasted treble forte against pianissimo, which could be as surprising as anything in Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, but this more obvious manifestation of their use concealed the fact that dynamics were integral to his whole conception of music. Ballads were played from pianissimo to mezzo-piano, while medium and fast tempi were played mezzo-forte, allowing him latitude to go quieter or louder during the course of the song. As Weston has pointed out, Jamal had, “Such a beautiful sense of dynamics which I have to emphasise is left out in music”. What could be especially mesmerising was the remarkable dynamic control of the group on Claude Thornhill’s composition ‘Snowfall’, culminating in a fade ending in real time on the Alhambra set, something the trio had brought to perfection on the remarkable coda of ‘Autumn Leaves’ from the Spotlite set. Here Crosby and Fournier slowly decrease in volume, creating a creative tension that is almost unbearable as they fade until they become inaudible, soliciting a delighted laugh of respect from a member of the audience. You can just imagine him shaking his head in amazement, just as musicians have done ever since the album was originally released.
Jamal frequently modified the harmonies of songs, sometimes on the spur of the moment, necessitating sharp ears from bassist Israel Crosby, who equally acted as agent provocateur by introducing extended harmonies into his line, tempting Jamal to follow him — which he invariably did. Other times, he formalised this process into an arrangement, such as ‘Angel Eyes’ from the Alhambra session. In his liner notes for Jamal’s Complete Ago Trio sessions on Mosaic, Kenny Washington puts Jamal’s arrangement under the microscope, “He uses the intro as an interlude. For the first chorus of his improvisation, he switches to the regular A-A-B-A songform of the tune. He then goes directly to the bridge and last A section with the interlude. This form is repeated again (bridge, last A and interlude). Listen to how he changes his dynamics down to a pianissimo and brings back the bridge melody. The Gershwin classic ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ is quoted for a second time at the last A before the intro is again stated for a powerful ending.”
Another technique used by Jamal was breaking open a song’s form with episodes of static harmony as a way of taking his improvisation in new and unexpected directions, something that excited the attention of Miles Davis. For example, on the second chorus of ‘Squatty Roo’ from the 1958 Spotlite sessions, Jamal replaces the sixteen bar AA section of the AABA song with a pedal point in F so that his return to the B section truly makes it a “release.” On ‘Surrey with a Fringe on Top’ from the Pershing set 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. Perhaps the most striking example of this technique is found on Jamal’s version of the 32 bar ‘Autumn Leaves’ on the Spotlite set, where he breaks open the song’s AABC form with an extended vamp in Eb for his improvisation — later emulated by Herbie Hancock and the rhythm section of Miles Davis’s quintet on their September 1964 version of the same tune on Miles in Berlin, where the rhythm section switch from the song’s AABC form with a polyrhythmic vamp in Eb, playing 3-against-4 but, as Bill Kirchner has pointed out, with Wayne Shorter remaining true to the songs form and changes during his solo, with everyone resolving on the ‘one’ at the end of his improvisation and returning the AABC form of the song once more. What is particularly arresting on Jamal’s Spotlite version of the song is that Jamal twice breaks open the song’s form with a Eb vamp, and on the second occasion he 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. Also worth pointing is that when Jamal plays on the song’s AABC form, Fournier uses a modified cha-cha rhythm on brushes, but when he breaks off into the Eb vamp, Fournier changes to a repeated two-beat rhythmic figure similar in conception to his widely admired rhythmic pattern on ‘Poinciana’, but here pulled-off with impressive precision with brushes — and where does that regular cymbal splash on the 2 and 4 come from? Another example of what a master of his craft Fournier was. Fournier plays a subtle variation of this rhythm on ‘We Kiss In The Shadows’ from the Alhambra set, although the recording engineer must have been sorting out his levels on this number, as both drummer and bassist are back in the mix as compared to the Pershing recording, but Jamal isn’t — just listen to his beautifully, evenly fingered semi-quaver (sixteenth note) runs which appear during his solo. Vladimir Horowitz would have approved.
A feature of Jamal’s trio with Crosby and Fournier was their cohesiveness that depended on a high level of interdependence between 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 invention. 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 other bass players could match, in live performance he often appeared in constant dialogue with Jamal. On all four live sessions, Crosby is using gut strings and, as Jamal pointed out in the liner notes for the Mosaic Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions 1956-62, “He had flawless intonation. He had a Kay bass. No great $80,000 instrument, a Kay bass!”. At the time, Kay basses were produced cheaply, mainly for students, and in an interview with Loren Schoenberg in 1985, Fournier confirmed the bass Crosby used on these recordings was probably less than $500, pointing out that whatever bass Crosby picked up, he was able to get a full, majestic tone — he didn’t need an expensive bass, said Fournier, adding that despite his size, he was physically exceptionally strong. Evidence, as if evidence was needed, that expensive gear does not a great jazz musicians make. Indeed on all four live sets Crosby played totally acoustically — in other words he was not amplified — but the wonderful tone he got from his instrument was perfectly captured by Malcolm Chisholm, the Chess recording engineer! For an acoustic bass to heard, the internal balance of both Jamal and Fournier had to be constantly focused around and often under the sound of the acoustic bass.
In Vernel 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 feel to contemporary jazz, for example, the masterful groove he sets up for ‘Poinciana’ from At The Pershing: But Not For Me. Here, Fournier uses a drumstick and a mallet and is an example of how he took Walter Perkins’ idea of adapting the conga rhythm played on the neck of the guitar by Ray Crawford on a drum kit and how, as drummer Kenny Washington has noted, Fournier took it to “a whole new level”. Comparison of the rhythmic underpin of Jamal’s original October 25, 1955 recording of ‘Poinciana’ with Crawford to Fournier’s rhythmic adaptation literally transforms ‘Poincinana’ into a classic. With Jamal half-time against Fournier’s imaginative rhythmic conception that is quite masterful in execution, creating a hypnotic rhythm that Jamal literally sits on. For years many musicians and critics swore it had been produced by two drummers, but here is central to the trio’s performance. Fournier tuned his snare and tom-toms — they were calf heads and notoriously fickle to temperature change — but here they are perfectly in tune to answer a phrase started by Jamal that recurs from time to time during the arrangement.
Of special interest is the way Fournier sustained this complex groove over the duration of the performance — some eight minutes — with such precision and imagination is a true tour-de-force of drumming/percussion. Fournier modifies 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), gradually embellishing the “groove” by playing a more interactive role with rimshots so that by the final chorus the extent to which his “groove” has been so subtly developed through the whole performance is starkly highlighted by his return to the original rhythm by the reprise of the ‘Poinciana’ theme. All the while Fournier’s immaculate timekeeping remained supple enough to never miss a heartbeat while interestingly, his rhythmic patters were shadowed throughout by Crosby’s bass.
It’s hardly a cause for wonder that Fournier considered his performance his best on record — it’s among the great drumming performances in jazz — yet Fournier was a master at creating these compelling, swaying two-beat grooves, for example, ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Stomping’ at the Savoy’ on the Spotlight set, or ‘We Kiss In A Shadow’ from the Alhambra set. Jamal would subsequently claim, with good reason, this version of ‘Poinciana’ on “628”, meaning the Argo catalogue number of the Pershing LP, was his best recording, later saying, “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”.
One technique that Fournier used was “Feathering” his bass drum, meaning he used his bass drum pedal very lightly to mark four beats to the bar, a holdover from earlier eras of jazz to be sure, but the idea in modern jazz was to add subtle emphasis and depth to the bass at key moments, for example, during ‘Broadway’ from the Alhambra set Where there are several examples), or when Jamal switched from playing in two to playing in four, Fournier might discretely lend emphasis to the four beats in a bar by “feathering”. He tuned the drum head very tightly to produce a higher pitched sound as can be heard, for example, in ‘Sweet and Lovely’ or ‘The Party’s Over’, again from the Alhambra sessions.
He was also a consummate master of playing with brushes, possessing a flawless technique equal to any rhythmic challenge, illustrated by his precise yet swinging brush articulation on ‘Woody n’ You’ and the perfectly articulated rhythmic groove he comes up with, and holds, throughout ‘I’ll Remember April’ from the Pershing set or the Bolero rhythm of the ‘Boy Next Door’ on the Spotlight set. In truth, Jamal’s live performances between 1958 and 1962 contain countless gems of subtlety and creativity from both Crosby and Fournier that constitute minor miracles of accompaniment — the complex, repeated bass figure that Crosby effortlessly articulates during the vamp interludes of ‘Autumn Leaves’ from Spotlight sessions, for example, was then used to open the Alhambra version of the same song, or Crosby and Fournier’s memorable performance on ‘Taboo’ from the Spotlight set where Crosby plays a maraca with the lower fingers of his right hand while simultaneously plucking the bass, a feat of dexterity that does not flub a beat on either bass or maraca while Fournier’s samba based rhythm generates considerable heat with timbale-like fills executed on his snare (snare off) and side tom-tom — indeed, throughout these four live sets, Fournier demonstrates his mastery of Latin rhythms, often moving between an orthodox, swinging four and a Latin rhythm and back again with consummate ease.
Jamal’s trio with Crosby and Fournier were enormously influential in its day, Miles Davis one of many musicians in the 1950s who was sufficiently inspired by Jamal’s playing to record several tunes first recorded by Jamal, starting with his Okeh trio 1951-1955. Miles Davis, for example, copied 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 is reported to have said at the time. Indeed, there was an occasion when when Jamal’s trio was playing the Pershing Lounge in January 1958, and Miles Davis was playing in a downstairs room and, as Jamal recalls, “He was able to come upstairs and see my group”. The Jamal trio’s rhythmic cohesion and interplay between piano, bass and drums was something Miles Davis wanted from his own group, even urging members of his quintet to listen to Jamal’s recordings, 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 closely followed Jamal’s. However, while Davis’ debt to Jamal’s style cannot be precisely calibrated it certainly went deeper than song titles and arrangements and a use of space — “playing silences” — during an improvisation. On Davis’ 1957 collaboration with Gil Evans, Miles Ahead, not only do Davis and Evans pay tribute to Jamal by closely following his original composition ‘New Rhumba’ from Chamber Music of the New Jazz, with Evans using the striking treble forte intro transposed for brass (that’s repeated over 16 bars prior to the exposition of the ‘New Rhumba’ theme). This intro figure was a signature phrase of Jamal’s he interpolated into many live performances in abbreviated two, four and even eight bar form with his trio with Crosby and Fournier — for example, ‘No Greater Love’ from the Pershing set, ‘Secret Love’ from the Spotlight set, ‘The Party’s Over’ from the Alhambra set and in the coda of ‘April in Paris on the Blackhawk set. According to Hal Galper, “Miles kind of overshadowed Ahmad. He didn’t give Ahmad enough credit.” Bur Davis was at his most comfortable when he didn’t have to share the credit with anyone — for example, Bill Evans fought tooth and nail for composer credit on ‘Blue in Green’ from Kind of Blue but eventually got it, on his album Blue in Green (Milestone), recorded in 1974, not that anyone noticed.
Bill Evans, on leaving Davis had clearly listened to the interaction between Jamal, Crosby and Fournier and when he formed his own trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian who developed an even more discursive and looser interactive relationship than Crosby and Fournier — there is a significant difference in the rhythmic approach of this new trio and previous Evans trio albums such as Everybody Digs Bill Evans and New Jazz Connections. 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 produce a performance that is the highlight of Jarrett’s Blue Note set of recordings. As a matter of record, among the first LPs purchased by Keith Jarrett as a youngster was Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal — comprising tracks from the Spotlight sessions which just happened to include the version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ from the Spotlight set discussed above — while one of the acknowledged formative influences on Jack DeJohnette was Vernel Fournier, whom he saw perform several times with Jamal and Crosby on bass whenever they played Chicago.
Jamal’s trio with Crosby and Fournier was wound up in 1962. Jamal had opened the Alhambra Restaurant in Chicago in the hope of making it his base for performing, with only occasional short tours. But running a trio and a restaurant employing over 40 staff, attending to the administrative side and all the day to day problems such a venture produces proved too much, “It was too big a challenge for me and my place is in music”, he said. Besides, in the 1960s the world was not ready for a nonalcoholic restaurant. “When I built the Alhambra it was such as headache I decided to quit everything”, Jamal told Kenny Washington in an interview for the Mosaic box set of his 1956-62 Argo recordings. “Dismantle the group and come here [New York City] and go to school. My long felt ambition was to go to Juilliard”. However, in an interview not on this website I had with Jamal he did concede he wound-up the trio too soon.
Jamal never did fulfil his ambition of attending Juilliard. By December 1962 he was back in the recording studio recoding Macanudo (Argo), and by 1963 he had a new trio with Jamil Nasser on bass and Chuck Lampkins on drums. Meanwhile, Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier had no problems finding work, “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 popular 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. Vernel Fournier remained with Shearing for two years, but returned to play in Jamal’s trio between 1965-66, recording Extensions and Rhapsody for the Cadet label in 1965. He then entered a long running residency at a restaurant owned by Elijah Muhammad, converting to Islam in 1975. In many ways, Jamal was defined by his trio with Crosby and Fournier, and during the rest of the 1960s and 1970s he quietly experimented with repositioning his approach to the piano, with Live at Oil Can Harry’s from 1976 one step along this path. By the time he signed with Atlantic in 1985, a more assertive, questing approach had finally coalesced that was not in competition with a distinguished past that could never be repeated. Context is all in jazz, and as these four live sessions for Argo demonstrated, the Ahmad Jamal Trio between 1958 until 1962 was, for a brief four year period, one of jazz’s greatest small groups. The tragedy is that we didn’t hear more from this trio as Jamal’s seemingly limitless creativity, inspired by his bassist and drummer, seemed far from exhausted on their final recording session, Live at the Blackhawk. Later in life, Jamal would concede he disbanded the trio too early, which would become a source of regret, as he admitted to drummer Kenny Washington in his interview for Mosaic reissue package, “I was so busy trying to negotiate life’s problems and trying to negotiate the mere necessities of life that I’m now fully appreciating the depth of this group…I don’t think any of us realise sometimes what we have until its gone. It was sheer joy working with those two individuals. Master musicians”. The tragedy, perhaps is their impact on the ledger of jazz history was slight, as Hal Galper has noted, “Ahmad’s major contributions have yet to be recognised.” That was in 1999, and we’re still waiting.