September 29th, 2008
One of the highlights of the 2007 Earshot Jazz Festival for me was the performance of Ahmad Jamal.
It was the firast time I got to see him play after listening to his music for decades.
Here is what they wrote about him in Earshot Jazz Magazine.
Pianist Ahmad Jamal has infused small jazz ensembles with an orchestral spirit for almost half a century, attracting innumerable
accolades: National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellow, Duke Ellington Yale University Fellow, Officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters. Then there are the award-winning recordings,
like Jamal’s seminal “Poinciana,” which took up residence on the Top-10 charts (overall!) for 108 weeks in 1958-60. There are the film credits for music – notably Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County – the published music transcriptions, the shopworn excerpts from Miles Davis autobiography, in which he gushes uncharacteristically about Jamal’s influence on the trumpeter’s
But none of this speaks to the music itself. Here, Jamal’s own words speak ironic volumes. Rather than jazz, Jamal prefers the term “American classical,” and he insists that his trio – with bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad
– is instead a “small ensemble.” Yet this “Golden Era” ensemble has proved instrumental in cementing the piano trio as a timeless form for jazz itself. “No musician
has had a more profound effect on the orchestral approach to small group in the last 35 years,” wrote the Village Voice. Make that 50.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1930, Jamal took to the piano very soon after. At age three, he was playing. By seven, he’d begun formal studies. At age 14, the irrefutable
child prodigy joined the musicians union, then promptly finished college master classes while still in high school. Discovered, as it were, by producer John Hammond while playing with his piano/bass/guitar ensemble (The Three Strings), Jamal quickly signed a deal to make a record.
Since then, Jamal has released at least 80 more albums. At their best, they document an incontrovertible genius of American music. As a soloist, Jamal improvises
with matchless clarity, by turns as prominent and fully voiced as an operatic chorus or as fragilely delicate as silence itself. He plays like a conduit, channeling some inexhaustible, unrepeatable source of musical ideas, accessible only to him by cosmic circumstance.
Though he prefers not to say much more about it, Jamal’s stated philosophy is Islam. His recent album, After Fajr, takes its name from the Islamic dawn prayer. Its title track adds Jamal’s choral arrangement and lyrics to the small ensemble.
“I have put the oldest instrument in the world – the human voice – on the track,” he writes in the album’s liner notes. “My audiences have loved it every time we perform it and we hope the entire recording will be a favorite of our fans.”
Those fans include three generations of inspired musicians. From his first collaborators
to recent artists – pop and soul singer John Legend and rappers Common
and Nas – who sample his music, the rippling effect of Jamal’s importance can scarcely be encapsulated.