It’s 9:30 a.m., not always a friendly hour to those who make music in the night. But Ahmad Jamal, the 77-year-old piano giant, sounds perfectly chipper.
“I’ve done four hours of work and exercise already today,” he says. “If you’re not busy, something’s wrong, unless you’re retired. And some retired people are busier than others who are working.”
Jamal, not exactly retired, is a very busy person these days. He’s just back from France, where he was made an officer in the Order of Arts and Letters. He just finished recording a new CD. And he’s starting a tour.
It’s all serious fun for Jamal, a man whose music can sound deceptively simple even as it digs as deep as any music out there.
“I retire every day,” he says. “Doing what you want to do, that’s retirement. My jobs are paid vacations.”
They’re hard-earned vacations, too. Jamal was one of the hardest-working men in music in the 1950s and `60s, and his hits “Poinciana” and “But Not for Me” led to some of the biggest-selling jazz albums of that time or any other.
The popular jazz artists, of course, are the ones who get in trouble with the serious jazz establishment. But consider that Jamal’s biggest fan was Miles Davis, the arbiter of all things cool. For quite a while, Davis selected tunes for his records by borrowing the tunes that Jamal had just recorded and keeping close to Jamal’s arrangements.
Jamal’s current trio features funky drummer Idris Muhammad, another jazz giant (“he has more stuff on the Internet than I do,” Jamal notes), and bassist James Cammack, a wonderful player who’s been reading Jamal’s mind for 27 years.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Jamal says. “You can’t get the empathy and detail and breathing together in music if you’re changing personnel. In business you can’t do it, and in music you can’t do it.”
That’s the right kind of launching pad for Jamal, a driven man who doesn’t rest on his laurels. Even the biggest hits, the ones he’s in his sixth decade of playing, are constantly rethought in his refined style, which balances bursts of aggression and jaunty grooves.
Somehow he makes it all sound poised - almost like his beloved classical music.
He doesn’t like the word jazz. He’d rather call it “American classical music.”
“The dictionary defines jazz as many things, and some of them are unmentionables. ... This is Duke Ellington’s, Louis Armstrong’s and Ella Fitzgerald’s culture, and they’re all so different - we haven’t discovered how to define it properly. Dave Brubeck, George Shearing and me, we all have to know Beethoven and Mozart along with the standards - we have to know the best of both worlds, or we can’t get to second base.”
He’s experimented with new grooves and new keyboard instruments, but he always comes back to his first love, the piano, the instrument he was playing Liszt etudes on when he was 10 years old. Jamal still possesses a fearsome set of piano chops, which he hones from morning to night.
He even gets his practice in on the road. “I have a digital piano delivered to my room. That’s part of my contract,” he says. “I can put on the earphones and play or write, and I don’t have to disturb people.”
So how many hours a day does he put in at the piano?
“Not enough,” says the morning-and-night musician. “But God is the best knower of that.”