As the forefathers of bebop fade into history only a lingering few can still trump age with the agility and verve of the past. Whether jazz itself—as both music and culture—is dying is a routine question posed by critics, musicians, and octogenarians alike. Many suggest Hurricane Katrina as the final blow: the force that severed the hair, letting Jazz’s Sword of Damocles fall. But some of those very cynics also deny Wynton Marsalis as its savior, while others praise him for resuscitating its traditions and prominence.
To the lay-listener, such obfuscations overlook an array of recent albums that are timely, inventive, and rich with the genre’s tradition (e.g. Herbie Hancock’s Grammy winning River: The Joni Letters, Robert Glasper’s In My Element, countless retrospectives and archival treasures.)
Though primarily regarded as a bebop jazz player, Ahmad Jamal supersedes any categorization—undoubtedly key to his musical vitality. In his venerable career he has recorded over 35 albums ranging from bebop to cool jazz to Caribbean to blues, all the while earning revered accolades like Officer, order of Arts and Letters from the French government and the National Endowment of the Arts’ Jazz Master Award. The consensus is that At the Pershing: But Not For Me (1958), is his best album.
While Jamal’s latest, It’s Magic, lacks the intoxicating swing of At the Pershing—specifically tracks like “But Not For Me”, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, and “Moonlight in Vermont”—it more than makes up in its Afro-Cuban infused palpitations and titillating grooves.
Agile and assertive, “Dynamo”, opens the album with energetic panache. It’s immediately gripping in its distinct new sound—trio regulars Idris Muhammed, drums, and James Cammack, bass, are augmented by percussionist Manolo Badrena. Jamal’s staccato style is intact and pugnacious, yet in a reserved manner so that the supporting musicians provide a balanced but flavorful foundation.
Revisiting an old standard, “Swahililand” (first recorded in 1974), sounds rested and rejuvenated. Becoming awash in an introductory and transitional wave of glissandos, the listener, through Jamal’s spacing, is immediately pulled back into a seductive bass line played on piano. However Jamal challenges the senses, returning several times to the flurry of notes.
One of the album’s strongest tunes, “Back to the Island”, separates itself through a refined confluence of presence and reserve. A fertile amalgamation of the group’s playing and Jamal’s commanding vision, it is at once ominous and paradisiacal. The opening line suggests such a dichotomy with its ambiguously toned chords supporting a sprightly pickup line. The resulting sanguine turnaround propels the piece, leaping into the next phrase with the verve of bebop. But the stormy tone persists in the chords underlying the turnaround, so Jamal tinkers with it during some solos while others emphasize the reoccurring saccharine resolve. All the while Manolo Badrena’s percussive flourishes accentuate the momentum along with Jamal’s irregular accents (evoking Thelonious Monk’s inventive punctuation.) Because of Jamal’s deft restraint and sophisticated touch, the percussionist’s strokes evenly permeate the track instilling a tropical tone.
Just because the album doesn’t swing doesn’t mean one never gets the urge. The title track, a cover of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “It’s Magic”, aches for a cool cadence, especially with two percussion players at Jamal’s disposal. Instead it sways with liberating impulses but keeps its composure.
At this point the album eases into a morose phase, meandering as it loses some of its initial vigor. That, or it simply lacks the finesse and backing pulse of the earlier tracks. But the committed listener will be rewarded with a rhetorical rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight”, and even a “Yankee Doodle” reference during “Wild is the Wind/Sing.”
Instantly, the entrancing bass line of “Arabesque” (first played by Jamal, then Cammack) sidles up to the listener before dissipating into one’s pulse. The piece continues with repeated languid resolutions that evolve from the resonating minor toned bass syncopation to major toned improvised piano delicacies. The piece is strongly grounded in the seductive bass line, which conveys an unrelenting but likeable swagger: urbanity not bravado.
In solos and transitions Jamal, very effectively, alters the tone of one note in a sequence to completely shift its feeling, then alternates between the variations to create tension before demurely resolving. In other words, “Arabesque” captures the nuanced, varying, and undulating under tones of Jamal’s most famous work, “Poinciana.”
While the debate over jazz’s waning significance in American culture is relentlessly debated, its pioneers will continually fade into history. Of the few remaining vanguards, even fewer remain as musically and physically astute and prolific as Ahmad Jamal. It’s Magic is a testament to his scope and vivacity. And when his work shows up in samples by hip-hop’s most respected figures (e.g. J Dilla, on De la Soul’s “Stakes is High”; Nas, on “The World is Yours”; and Common, on “Resurrection”) one cannot deny the relevance and dynamism—even if subconsciously pervading our progressive ears—of Jamal and jazz.