[24 July 2003]
Ahmad Jamal is very enthusiastic about his latest recording, In Search of Momentum, representing as it does the first in a series of recordings for Dreyfus Jazz. At 72, the pianist who was a major influence on Miles Davis has no plans to slow down. In fact, he may be at the top of his form—truly amazing considering the considerable body of work he’s already created. Jazz piano trio music comes in a wide variety of styles. There are chamber trios, neo-classical trios, dinner music trios, avant trios, power trios, and more. In fact, there is a piano trio for pretty much any occasion and to suit the taste of any listener. But there is only one Ahmad Jamal, and there is no pianist who sounds like him.
Jamal is accompanied by his longstanding collaborators, bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammed, both of whom have strong rapport with each other and with the pianist. The trio format provides Jamal enough space to interpret each piece to its potential, and that doesn’t necessarily mean filling all that space up. Like Miles, Jamal is a master at using space, defining his statements as much by what he doesn’t play as by what he does. At a time when many players who choose to mine jazz music’s post-bop vocabulary sound dated, Ahmad Jamal always sounds completely contemporary, but without any gimmickry or artificial showmanship. Pianists both young and old check out what he’s doing because he is simply has very few peers among today’s crop of pianists.
There’s also plenty of Jamal the composer present on In Search of Momentum. Right from the opening track, “In Search Of”, you hear Jamal’s graceful, light touch in the upper register of the piano as well as his ability to create thunderous, rolling waves of sound in the lower register. There are many, many jazz pianists out there, and quite a few really talented ones, but few can offer the range of Jamal’s expression and the mastery of the instrument he possesses. You hear shades of nearly every influential pianist of the last forty years or so on this disc: Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Monk, Cecil Taylor, Earl Hines, and lots of classical influences as well. This is a man who has listened to everyone and imitated no one. To many who don’t follow jazz closely, Jamal seems like a musician who is not well known and who hasn’t done a lot lately, but anyone who has listened to the pianists of more recent generations knows that his influence has been far reaching and deep.
Standout tracks on In Search of Momentum include the opening title track, the jazz waltz “Should I”, the very impressive “Excerpts from I’ll Take the 20”, which is part of a promising, much longer composition, “Whisperings”, which features vocals by O.C. Smith, the Afro-Caribbean “Island Fever”, and the Monty Alexander-penned “You Can See”. But really, every track on this disc is a strong one. It may seem hard to believe given the large number of recordings that Jamal has made, but In Search of Momentum is definitely some of his best work. That’s something in and of itself, but when you’re talking about a pianist as fine as Jamal, that makes this one of the better jazz recordings you can pick up.