[10 March 2010]
I have to admit I feel a little guilty writing this, because I’m going to have a hard time explaining what it is makes Ahmad Jamal’s nearly 50th studio release such a fun listen. My only experience with Jamal’s work is through samples of his work on tracks from hip-hop artists like Common, Gangstarr, Jay-Z, Nas, and most recently Rick Ross’s Deeper Than Rap album. Being that his music has been reworked for many of these songs, and they are songs I really enjoy, seeing his name on PopMatters’ review list had me jumping at the chance to snatch up a copy of this album. But now I have to review it.
It should first be noted that, at age 79, Jamal remains an exceptional piano player. On a blind listen, one could easily hear this album as the product of a young prodigy’s mind, still eager to explore his instrument and flex his knuckles. “Flight to Russia” is joyfully bouncy, infused with Jamal’s signature swing and inventive style of playing that takes the song on a nice ride through its second half before returning to the original themes in its final minute.
James Cammack is this album’s secondary star, and he always provides each song with a solid, rumbling background on the upright bass. Percussionist Manolo Badrena is similarly suited for finding the right pockets in the groove to accent, and those pockets are consistently filled snugly by “The Wizard” Kenny Washington, who appears in the studio with Jamal for the first time.
Late in the album, Jamal returns to “Tranquility”, a song of his originally recorded in 1968 and updated here with much more freedom and flirtation with the song’s old melody. For older heads, this could stand as a signifier of the style Jamal is going for on this release, as many songs fall in line with “Tranquility” and offer the same mood: dark nights, clear skies, chilly but comfortable weather. The album is truly suited for its titular quiet time, but it works just as well as a soundtrack to your walk around campus or your 9-to-5 in the cubicle. At each and every moment I start to wonder whether I’m getting bored with a song, Jamal drops a fantastic new deviation and I’m back in the cut for more.
After keeping this album on constant rotation for a week, I feel like this isn’t just another entry in Jamal’s catalog, but another high-quality, tell-all-your-friends-type release. There aren’t any weak cuts here, and many of them feel homey and familiar with a couple of spins of the disc. Perhaps the middle section could have used a little more variety to spice things up (I’m thinking of the moment during “After JALC” when the rhythm section is finally given equal importance to Jamal and bursts with energy), but when the playing is this accomplished I find that less of a concern than with lesser artists, though I’m not sure whether bigger jazz heads will react more or less favorably to this.
Jamal saves the best for last, though,, with the aforementioned breathtaking run through “Tranquility” and the familiar “Blooming Flower”. And by bookending the album with its best tracks, Jamal does a good job of pulling the listener in, settling them into a groove and then releasing them back into the water, causing the listener to forget those middling moments at the center.