Ahmad Jamal – Ballades – Jazz Village

by | Sep 16, 2019 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Ahmad Jamal – Ballades – Jazz Village JV570140 [distr. by PIAS/Harmonia Mundi], 41:47 ****1/2:

(Ahmad Jamal – piano; James Cammack – double bass tracks 1, 7 & 9)

Pittsburgh native Ahmad Jamal has been recording jazz for six decades. His ascension into the jazz scene came on the heels of the frenetic bebop movement. These musicians were noted for  rapid-fire virtuosic runs. Jamal was moving in a counter direction. He focused on riffs, timbres and phrasing in a minimalist vamping technique. He is compared to Thelonious Monk as a great influence on future pianists like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. Additionally, Miles Davis has credited him for his immersion in cool jazz. Like many in this newer genre, Jamal maneuvered jazz into popular music. His breakthrough occurred in 1957 with the release of At The Pershing; But Not For Me. Included with the title cut were covers of “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “Poinciana”. His arrangements resembled big band dynamics reworked for small ensemble. He continues to record and perform well into his 80’s. Jamal has always appreciated ballads. The challenge of finding the raw emotions of lyrics as instrumental voicing is a challenge that all jazz pianists accept enthusiastically.

Jamal’s latest release Ballades is a ten-song excursion (7 solo, 3 with double bass accompaniment) into a jazz legend’s world of piano interpretation. Recorded in 2017, this collection reinforces the pianists’ stylish utilization of timing and phrasing. The opening selection “Marseille” (the first double bass duet) opens with a subtle pulse before it ushers in a ruminative flow. His restrained flourishes add to the overall texture. The hushed beauty of this composition (an original) is flawless. “Because I Love You” folds separate left and right hand rhythms together. There is ethereal right hand notation against a classic left hand ostinato vamp. The song “I Should Care” has been a pop (Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Julie London) and jazz (Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Modern Jazz Quartet) standard for eighty-five years. Melodic cadence with bass punctuation and delicate classical runs frame the various moods and nuances of Jamal’s interpretation. Revisiting “Poinciana” is a treat for the listener. Jamal takes out all the stops with rhythmic left hand notes and spirited playing, but in a gossamer reverie. Ahmad pays tribute to fellow pianist Eddie Heywood, covering “Land Of Dreams”. While exploring the tender sentiment of the tune, Jamal infuses both lyrical finesse and stunning accents. It evolves into a musical tapestry.

Jazz pianists take pride in reinventing standards. In the case of “What’s New” the romantic whimsy is there, but gritty chording mixes with the harmonious intonation and grandiosity. His unconventional timing is reminiscent of Thelonious Monk. Double bassist James Cammack brings another style element to “So Rare”. A late career hit for Jimmy Dorsey, it has been covered by Don Cherry, Mose Allison and Marian McPartland. Jamal injects a bouncy resonance with a dose of jazzy melancholy. A certain highlight is “Whisperings”. With a cinematic feel, there are tempo changes, syncopation and sudden transitions from solitude to exuberance. Jamal shines on a two-song medley (“Spring Is Here”/“Your Story”). In distinctive technique, the veteran pianist (accompanied by Cammack) touches on the parallel songwriting essence of Richard Rodgers and Bill Evans. Chord changes, trills and an innate sense of heartfelt pathos make this accessible and moving. Johnny Mandel’s haunting “Emily” (from the 1964 movie The Americanization of Emily) was destined for popular banality until Bill Evans recorded it in 1967 (Further Conversations With Myself). Jamal infuses jazz theatrics and magnitude into his arrangement. He manages to elevate the gorgeous theme with a touch of ferocity.

Ahmad Jamal is a jazz wonder!

Because I Love You
I Should Care
Land Of Dreams
What’s New
So Rare
Spring Is Here/Your Story

—Robbie Gerson

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