A central conundrum of jazz is the snobbish view that if people like it, then it can’t be any good. Great jazz, it’s said, is challenging, difficult, even off-putting. Any jazz that is accessible and truly popular, the view goes, has a soft artistic underbelly.
This has been Ahmad Jamal’s curse. A jazz pianist who had a genuine hit record (“Poinciana” from Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not For Me, back in the ‘50s when jazz musicians still could have hit records), Mr. Jamal had money and acclaim but not respect. While others might say, “Hey, respect doesn’t fill your refrigerator”, Ahmad Jamal has had to fight for musical respect over the years.
It shouldn’t have been all that hard, given that Mr. Jamal was championed by no less a jazz authority than Miles Davis. Miles was a gargantuan Jamal fan, basing the direction of his great ‘50s quintet to a significant degree on Jamal’s style and repertoire, even directing his pianist, Red Garland, to play more like Jamal. Even then, Jamal was seen by many as “a glorified cocktail pianist” with a knack for the dramatic. His fans all knew what was going on: punishment for being good. The critics were right that Jamal was dramatic. He built irresistibly swinging jazz tunes that—through the canny use of dynamics, silence, an orchestral approach to the piano, and very clever arrangement—were more appealing than the usual stuff. When Miles borrowed the approach, he knew what he was doing. And as others failed to make music as appealing using a similar approach, they would realize just how difficult and artful Jamal’s music really was.
Now Sony-Columbia is releasing Jamal’s earliest recordings, a series of trio dates recorded in 1951, 1952, and 1955, all with the Nat Cole-style instrumentation of piano, bass, and guitar. These tracks reveal a number of things from the git-go. First, Jamal’s style is largely intact at the very start. The 1951 “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” already exhibits most of the virtues that Miles would praise/steal. Jamal stylizes and simplifies the melody into little more than a trill and a few blues licks, generating a relentless swing. His piano solo is elegant and smooth, but with the Monk-ian traits of never abandoning the melody and working from a useful motif. After Ray Crawford’s guitar solo, the melody returns in an altered form, the trio playing like a tiny big band for 16 bars.
Jamal fans will enjoy the 1952 versions of the classic “Ahmad’s Blues” and “Billy Boy”, made more famous by a trio treatment on Miles Davis’ Milestones (also on Columbia). The role of the guitar in these trio recordings is unique in Jamal’s large discography. On “Ahmad’s Blues”, the guitar is given the role that Cole gave his trio’s guitarist—primarily to chord in the ensembles and then solo. On “Billy Boy”, Crawford does that but also plays with a peculiar percussive effect under much of the melody and piano solo. Apparently rapping the strings with his fingers, Crawford sounds like a bongo drum, popping or snapping on two and four to propel the trio forward and give it a unique, somewhat exotic sound. While legend has it that this sound is what inspired Miles to have Philly Jo Jones start playing rim-clicks on four with the quintet, on these recordings this effect is strange and distracting. Every time it stops it simply draws attention to the lack of any drums, and while it’s going on it seems like a party trick gone on too long. The spare and ingenious version of “Love for Sale” (cleverly interpolating Gillespie’s “Manteca”) is essentially ruined for me by this bongo-matic treatment.
The ballads on this collection are extremely effective. Ellington’s “Black Beauty” from 1955 (the trio for the first time featuring Israel Crosby rather than Eddie Calhoun on bass) is gorgeously rendered, with the trio playing in a highly orchestrated style, with Crosby taken certain portions of the melody and the guitar and piano playing interludes and chorded licks in perfectly coordinated syncopation. A similar Jamal-ian treatment works well on “Don’t Blame Me”. The whole arrangement is highly structured so that it never feels as if Jamal just handed around the lead sheet and told the guys to play. The tune is like a tiny concerto on a pop tune.
Outstanding honors go to the trio’s slowly swinging “Old Devil Moon”, on which Crawford plays more of the lead and Jamal’s arrangement are harmony choices make this Finian’s Rainbow tune seem like the hippest jazz idea of the decade. And all Jamal fans will want to hear the early version of “Poinciana”—a blueprint for the ‘58 hit version that beguiles here as well. The chords are voiced with seductive beauty, and Jamal contrasts the high and low registers of all the instruments to make his trio seem as big as a concert hall.
The early evidence presented here does more than reinforce where Jamal is going, however. His pianism has never seemed more indebted to Art Tatum than it does here, with daring runs that never seem forced or rushed. His origins in Nat Cole are clear not only in the instrumentation but also in his usual economy with notes and attention to dynamics. The version of Fats Waller’s “Squeeze Me” here is as sly as any Waller recording but modern in execution and harmony—and it’s one of the best things here. Mr. Jamal’s identity as a jazz showman ultimately makes sense in this context—he is coming out of an era when jazz was popular music and had an interest in entertaining in short, jukebox-friendly bursts. Each of these tunes (very few longer than four minutes) reinforces jazz’s role as an elegant form of pop music.
As a result, the critique of Jamal as a kind of cocktail pianist also makes sense. The solos on these records are rarely plumbing the depths. There is little blues grit or searching ecstasy on these recordings. They are hip in the somewhat “cocktail-y” manner of 1990s “lounge music.” However, they are artful too—showing an understanding of jazz history and orchestral arrangement that is utterly rare. If Jamal never has you sense that you’re listening to something that was very difficult to construct, well—that was part of his skill.
These early recordings surely rank beneath the classic trio recordings of a few years later, with Vernel Fournier’s drums. And as studio tracks, they don’t have the excitement found at the Pershing or wherever else it was that Miles first heard the Pittsburgh native ply his swinging, elegant trade.