Back in the 1950s, Miles Davis told the world “I live until Jamal makes another record,” and during the mid-‘50s he insisted that his pianist, Red Garland, sound as much like Ahmad Jamal as possible. In his autobiography, Davis talks about learning the use of space from Jamal, which is amazing in as much as Davis himself is usually considered the master of using silence and space. In retrospect, you can clearly hear the Jamal influence on such Miles albums as Milestones and even Kind of Blue, when Garland had been replaced by the less Jamal-like but still impressionistic Bill Evans.
On Olympia 2000, recorded in Paris in honor of Jamal’s 70th birthday, the pianist is accompanied by Crescent City drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist James Cammack, both longtime Jamal associates. He is also joined by tenor man George Coleman, who played briefly with Miles back in 1963. A product of Memphis and contemporary of Harold Mabern, Booker Little, and Frank Strozier, Coleman is an awesome postbop tenorist whose major influence was Charlie Parker. He proves a solid performer here, providing melodic beauty and a charming strength of tone that make you wish he recorded a bit more often. Jamal is not heard as an accompanist all that often, so the chance to hear his inventive backings of Coleman here is a rare treat. “My Foolish Heart” is a standout track, with Coleman ripping through chord changes at lightning speed even while reigning in his powerful sound. The control and mastery of the instrument that Coleman shows on this performance should make the younger generation of tenor players quake in their shoes.
Jamal is in terrific form, sounding inspired not only by Coleman but also by the occasion. Certainly any chance to hear Jamal should be savored like a vintage port, and when he cuts the trio loose on the two closing tracks, “Appreciation” and “Aftermath” you have to acknowledge that he easily blows away a million piano trio clichés in around 16-minutes playing time. Jamal is one of the truly great American classicists (a term he himself coined, referring to jazz as America’s classical music, a fact that is usually overlooked by those who use the term) and his light touch belies a strength of conception that allows him to build a cathedral from even the simplest motif. Listening to him swing his way through the trio performance of “Appreciation”, it’s hard not to hear his voice: “Be joyous in your work. Whether you’re doing a typewriter, or the 88’s, or playing trumpet, or you’re a physician or a lawyer, or whatever. Enjoying your work is very important.” There’s little doubt that Jamal is still enjoying his work immensely, and it’s the rare performer who can put that across these days.
“Aftermath”, one of Jamal’s original compositions, provides an opportunity for some fiery work by the normally calmer trio, but it’s a controlled storm, with Jamal swirling his way around the keyboard, periodically unleashing block chords that stir the swinging attack of Idris Muhammad, while Cammack’s bass weaves between the intensive drumming and the energetic piano work. The result is a performance of such energy and conviction that you find yourself checking Jamal’s birth date again. Can this really be the work of a 70-year-old man? Jamal has gotten to where he is, both musically and in life, by being his own best influence, never stopping to find out what others are saying about his music, and by applying a few simple life lessons. “A lot of our great, great talents have been destroyed because of the influence of this world,” he says. “You have to live according to the rules. You’ve gotta observe some of the rules, if not all. The more rules you observe in this life, the more soul you’re gonna get.” Ahmad Jamal must have observed the rules very well, because at seventy he has as much soul as any musician out there, and more than most.