Taken during Blue Moon sessions 2012.
By Claudio Botelho
For some time now, Mr. Leonardo Barroso has been pushing me into writing about Ahmad Jamal. For good reasons, I must say, as I have been an admirer of his pianism for some decades now. But there’s an issue: as much as I like his art, his exquisite sense of silence, his long , long time on the road and the fact he seems even better than ever in his eighties (per se, something to be reverent about), his supremely elegant touch along with an extraordinary command of his instrument, his indisputably good taste and a style all his own, I, as a layman who just like a lot to listen to jazz, find it difficult to say much more about him, don’t you agree, Mr. Barroso?
So, consider you’ve put some heavy burden on my back… Other than his excellency as a piano master player, there’s not much to say, as he’s the kind of a low-profile guy who just leads a normal life, like the rest of us. A perfectionist, it seems to me; an exclusive Steinway artist for good reasons…
So, what can I say? Should I speak, as an example, about his marvelous performance as an accompanist (although rarely seen) to singers like O. C. Smith and, lately, to the forever missed Shirley Horn in her, if my mind doesn’t betrays me, last commercial recording, named “May the Music Never End”? Here, should I suggest to our readers to check the songs “Maybe September” and “This is All Ask” where, along with Ms. Horn’s unique way of singing and feeling a song, Jamal’s counterpoints are some of the very best I‘ve ever heard? You see, herself a piano player who, through many, many moons, was the perfect partner for her own singing, wouldn’t choose a lesser one to take her place when an illness deprived her from playing, would she? No, no, no…never!
(Allow me to digress a little. Again, my feelings are of someone almost devoted to Jamal’s playing, so you must take it with a grain of salt. In his appreciation of this very Shirley Horn album, on Amazon, master reviewer Todd Kay, found Jamal’s performance on “Maybe September” at odds with the atmosphere of simplicity and economy of Ms. Horn way of expressing herself (“The closest thing to a false note”). As I said above, I found it just the opposite, being his solo on this specific song evocative of the uncertainty enclosed in the song when, in a fortissimo way, through a repetitive raising level notes, he shows the reticence which pervades it. As he said (Mr. Kay), Jamal can do things Ms. Horn couldn’t and we know he has a different way of playing: he is more prolific when improvising, indeed, and he showed it in that album, but I don’t think he didn’t get the song mood… Maybe Mr. Kay, being a maven at appreciating classical albums and, for that matter, more prone to react conservatively when the subject do not follow established cannons, found it a bit iconoclastic…)
You know what, Mr. Barroso, contrary to the findings of Mr. Kay, I dare say Ms. Horn, when examining the playbacks after this recordings, may as well have found Jamal’s performance more than excellent, superb; a crowning accomplishment in its precision, concision, syncopations, and an unsurpassed sense of working with nothing in-between notes other than the silence itself. He works as if his hands and keyboard were melted together, amalgamated into a monolithic musical productive structure which, through ingenious combination of sound and silence, sudden shifts, rhythm variations, continuous revisits to the main theme, pushes all the possibilities of his instrument. For this, among other resources, he counts on his ability to swipe from key one to eighty-eight effortlessly. He’s one of the very few who do this with such a casualness… Self assurance is his hallmark.
Never a middle-of-tune-prêt-à-porter improviser, in that his solos are never disconnected to the tunes themselves, he’s always around them in an in-and-out process, which happens several times, each one with different shades, colors, rhythms and syncopations. His playing is perfection in itself and, in his hands, one can listen all the Steinway music sound possibilities, as he’s the most tuneful of pianists, who combines grandiloquence with casualness, usually through arpeggios and rolled chords as demanded by his inspiration.
Have you ever listened to any Jamal’s piano pedal thuds, Mr. Barroso? About this, all I can say is that, in my experience with his playing, which spreads from 1962 to these days, I have heard none…
(To be continued when I put my hands on his newest “Blue Moon”). Then, after munching “Autumn Rain”, “Blue Moon”, “Gypsy”, “Invitation”, “I Remember Italy”, “Laura”, “Morning Mist”, “This is the Life”,” Woody’n You”- takes which last from 4:56 to a staggering 13:14min. of a tour-de-force jazz -, I’ll keep on writing.)
Bye, for now…