Ahmad Jamal – Marseille – Jazz Village 

Ahmad Jamal – Marseille – Jazz Village (distr. by Harmonia Mundi), 59:38 ****1/2:

(Ahmad Jamal – piano; James Cammack – double bass; Herlin Riley – drums; Manolo Badrena – percussion; Abd Al Malik – vocals/track 4; Mina Agossi – vocals/track 8)

There are many jazz legends that have  careers that endure well into their golden years. Perhaps there is no greater example of this phenomenon than Pittsburgh native Ahmad Jamal. With early influences like Art Tatum and Earl Hines, Jamal began recording in 1951, a year after changing his name. His early live recording At The Pershing (1958) received critical acclaim and featured the renowned “Poinciana”. Jamal was one of the important contributors to cool jazz. Like Miles Davis and others, this genre attempted to diverge from the lightning-speed of bebop and move jazz into the realm of popular music. His compositions and instrumental style placed emphasis on spacing and timing. This jazz legend has consistently recorded over a span of 65 years.

At eighty-seven years of age, Jamal continues to amaze. His spacious approach to jazz and song  interpretation is unique. His current release, Marseille is a heartfelt acknowledgement to the country and specifically the city that has inspired him for decades. The opening title track (which has three different versions on the album) is a moody instrumental set against a march time drumming pattern (Herlin Riley) and idiosyncratic percussion (Manolo Badrena). This complementary diversity creates atmospheric resonance and is hypnotic. Shifting gears, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” is percussive as Jamal builds  crescendos, rumbling left-hand bass lines and playful notation. James Cammack’s vampy double bass drives the jam. It is what Jamal self-describes as American classical, but with a decidedly bluesy swagger.

Each arrangement demonstrates a unique and graceful touch. On “Potts En Verre” the pianist mixes graceful, lyrical chords against an African percussion. His soloing has expressive flourishes, understated nuances and percolating right hand runs. There are a variety of jazzy upticks, syncopated inflections and hushed accents. As with many of the tracks, he interfaces flawlessly with the rhythm section. The second version of “Marseille” is ethereal, but more romantic with a spoken word performance by Abd Al Malik. Jamal’s piano lines are delicate and melodic. It is no surprise that “Autumn Leaves” is represented here. It was originally a French composition (titled “Les Feuilles Mortes”), performed by Yves Montand in the film, Les Portes de La Nuit. Jamal recorded it first in 1955 and many others (Bill Evans, Vince Guaraldi, Keith Jarrett and Barney Kessel) have offered great improvisational covers. This song is known for its inherent jazz harmony and chord progression. Jamal manages to lay down trademark signature rhythm hooks and accessible sway.

“I Came to See You/You Were Not There” is balladry at its best. The piano notes and chords provide a gossamer reverie. The improvisational prowess is on full display. Returning to march-time, “Baalbeck” is compelling with prominent chording and cool jazz sophistication. The drums and percussion are matched perfectly by the piano master with a repeat coda. The third version of “Marseille” has a sensual vibe, courtesy of guest vocalist Mina Agossi.

Ahmad JamalMarseille is superb!      

TrackList:
Marseille (instrumental)
Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child
Pots En Verre
Marseille (with Abd Al Malik)
Autumn Leaves
I Came To See You/You Were Not there
Baalbek
Marseille (with Mina Agossi)

—Robbie Gerson

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