Ahmad Jamal: After Fajr

[24 July 2005]

By Robert R. Calder

Never having been that fond of the usual trio sound Jamal specialised in, with that potential for development of inner voicings which made Miles Davis a fan, Britons might be more delighted here by the Jamal piano blatantly to the fore. A notable pianist himself, presumably Brian Priestley hadn’t tuned in to the Chicago veteran when long ago he wrote of ‘easy on the ear dribbling’ and ‘bastardised Basie’ in the right hand. His long-standing British reputation was as a sort of cocktail trio pianist who did interesting things while playing so-called easy listening neo-muzak. He didn’t have the following in UK he had in USA, where he was a jazzman with a market. It’s interesting that his trio didn’t record with a horn until his main vogue was over. Did he commercialise? While the recent reissue of his earliest recordings should be of interest in relation to the longtime dearth of British enthusiasm for his music, this latest set from him is just plain interesting music.

Here Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned” allows a good demonstration of the essence of his piano style. He seems to work in general with a very large-scale conception of what the trio is to play, something beyond the capacities of the piano, an over-full keyboard transcription. If he could play the whole conception it would seize up musically. What he does rather is to imply orchestral effects, working with an incredibly closely integrated trio as in effect a scaled down big band. Have there been any attempts to turn any of his performances into a big band score?

His pianistic ability is considerable, not merely in terms of the technique he has in spades, but in expressiveness. He finds the keyboard passages of the grand conception which are effective, with deep insight obviously into the original, and the demands of swing. He differs from other pianists who pare down, in that what he edits back to is still multi-noted and virtuosic.

On his own “After Fajr” he opens with overtly Tatumesque solo piano, prior to the entry of Donna McElroy, singing. She is abetted first by Jamal’s empathic regular bassist James Cammack, and then the small choir or chorus called Vox One. Fajr has come: and on her own again with Jamal and his regular bassist James Cammack Ms. McElroy continues the very nice melody. This is the only vocal track.

The drummer Idris Mohammed is back for “Milan”, another Jamal composition, programmed as usual between standards. Jamal seems to be trying to sound a bit like Count Basie, but a Basie whose style metamorphoses now and again into transcription of music characteristic of the post-1950 Basie big band. Perhaps Priestley all those years ago was listening more for something in the tradition of jazz pianists, than for a trio seeking other connections with post-1940s jazz.

The stirring “Yours Is My Heart Alone”, a Franz Lehar operetta song, once appealed to the late block-chord pioneer Milt Buckner, who stretched the sentimental associations to evoke a playful and loving irony. Like George Shearing certainly well aware of Buckner, and with a complex harmonic awareness beyond what interested Buckner (whose devices for swinging Bill Evans actually applied at least once on record) Jamal though developing an ambivalence does so between realizations of great tenderness and strongly empowered left-hand work. The following title is another original, “Swahililand”, notable for an amazing transfer of power from unbridled left hand to the bass and drums duo. The fearsome southern mitt stays ready to come down and in, whilst the right hand plays in concert with bass and drums in a sort of bop performance with undertones of a dark continent. The music smoulders, then burns, and there are occasional flourishes of flame, multi-note right-hand runs. There’s a suggestion of the African enthusiasms of Jamal’s generally very different contemporary Randy Weston. There are also healthy signs of growing old disgracefully. He comes back from Swahililand by way of Impressionist France.

Rodgers and Hart’s “My Heart Stood Still” opens properly attentive to the tempered romanticism which that songwriting team excelled in. As the piano volume increases, so do the suggestions of a gentle giant. Vincent Youmans’s “Time on my Hands” has more vintage Jamal, evidence of affinities with other and older pianists in the right-hand octave playing, and more bass thunder. The nine-minute “Topsy Turvy” is very much piano trio as big band, with riffs and large-scale business which emphasize awareness of swing era bands. The whole number has a sense of joy, for all that the big differences between Jamal and Buckner have to do with the former’s lack of Buckner’s sheer individuality, wit and humour, and a vast technical equipment both as virtuoso player and extraordinary thinker in terms of harmony, voicing, orchestration. There has always been a great deal to Jamal, and his substantial abilities as a composer of decent numbers are not betrayed in the closing “Manhattan Reflections”, played with considerable expression.

How far have his past recordings been dominated, and how far has listening certainly in Britain been affected, by notions of his music as a sort of product? This is a record for listeners who might long ago have given up on Jamal, although the repressed big band man who seems never to be far away—and Jamal emerged just at a time when running a big band was strictly infeasible—doesn’t avoid giving cause for thoughts about routine, the getting of effects verging on the mechanical, and a sort of predictability which denies him the very highest accolades. He has everything, and if the question is how judicious is his use of it, well, he still has a very great deal and has lost nothing.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jamalahmad-afterfajr/