When Ahmad Jamal mentioned that it’s been 50 years since “that” recording in Chicago—the renowned At the Pershing: But Not For Me which he recorded as a member of the Pershing Hotel’s house trio in 1958—his longevity and scope as a pianist quickly came into perspective and overwhelmed me. Few pianists, let alone jazz musicians, can claim such an expansive career. That the majority of this setlist came only from the latter 20 years of his repertoire was an additional testament to his continuing presence as one of jazz’s great pianists and innovators. But at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s season opening concert series in Rose Hall Jamal humbly eschewed his celebrated stature, opting to cherish the Hall’s demure acoustics, his quartet’s deft phrasing, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s superb arrangements and soloing.
The first half of the program featured Jamal with regular contributors James Cammack, James Johnson III, and Manolo Badrena on bass, drums, and percussion respectively. As Jamal made his way to the stage the three were settling into “Wild is the Wind / Sing”, a groove at the amalgam of bossa nova and jazz that swayed and swung, he stood before the group observing and absorbing like an astute maestro pondering where to take the piece. First he decided on pointing at each member to each take a solo, a musical introduction in other words. Badrena—Bert (of Bert and Ernie) coif and all—was the most flamboyant, literally squeezing timbres from his tambourine and timbales, but all three were lucid and adaptable. Upon joining the ensemble Jamal was at once precise and impressionistic, honing in on delicate passages and then quickly easing into arpeggiating flourishes and assertive countermelodies; his quantitative panache always balanced by qualitative details.
Continuing with pieces from his latest release, It’s Magic, Jamal et al demonstrated incredible restraint and touch, with an equally complimentary dose of fervor when necessary, on “Papillon”. Surprisingly Jamal relied on deliberate hand signals and pointing throughout the program to communicate with his quartet, something one does not anticipate when jazz musicians routinely speak of tacit and transcendent musical communication. At other times he would stand up and pace around the stage, taking in their dexterous backing with audience-like zeal. These movements created an awkward yet reverent tension at times, not unlike Thelonious Monk’s unpredictable and eccentric moves.
Drummer James Johnson showed superior sensitivity and control in the remaining measures of “In Search Of”, decrescendo-ing to nearly inaudible drum rolls before ending the piece with a bite.
As one of NPR music commentator Tom Moon’s “Songs of the Summer”, “Poinciana” was also included in his book “1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die”. It is Jamal’s certifiable “hit” and he didn’t waver from playing it here, coyly adding, “with your permission.” The song’s ethereal sound hinges on a faint vulnerability in Jamal’s playing; when he fluently shifts the tone of just one note in a repeated passage it toys with any unsettled emotions in the listener; Jamal tickles the right hand in cool phrases and then slips into evanescent comps.
Throughout the first half of the program, Jamal’s quartet exuded a silky syncopation that was buoyant and effortless so that it came across as “easy-listening.” But there existed layers of notes and articulated subtleties that made it rich and rewarding in reality.
Joining Jamal for the second half of the program was Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO). A seasoned big band featuring some of jazz’s finest instrumentalists, the JLCO has quickly attained institutional status in its 20-year history. On Jamal’s “The Aftermath”, Marsalis, as the patriarch of the ensemble, opened the soloing with a gripping solo evoking bebop and matching Jamal’s fluid transitions. In general the orchestra augmented Jamal’s compositions with a fierce urgency but also a reserved agility, and sounded like the Rossini of jazz at times.
It was evident that Jamal was enjoying the moment and the JLCO’s accompaniment and soloing, particularly trumpeter Marcus Printup and saxophonist Sherman Irby, when he exclaimed, “Phenomenal! I love it” at the end of their set. Then, seeking out an affirmative head nod from Marsalis to perform an encore—as if necessary judging from the crowd’s excited response—Jamal and the JLCO launched into “You Can See”.
The JLCO was all smiles and awe during and after the performance. The sentiment throughout the evening was clearly reciprocated by Jamal and his colleagues and the art patrons in the audience generally seemed to get the importance of Jamal’s New York premiere of these new orchestrations.
As Jamal’s lengthy career surges ahead, his significance multiplies and his influence broadens even more. He has even permeated into hip-hop—sampled by the likes of Kanye West and De La Soul—ordaining him relevance and importance to an even younger generation of listeners. And hopefully those will soon supersede the aging audience, like at Lincoln Center, which continually flocks to his performances.