Ahmad Jamal, Vindicated

A new six-CD box makes the same case fellow jazz musicians have made for decades

At a time when Miles Davis was singing Ahmad Jamal's praises to anyone who would listen, hailing the pianist as an influence on his own thinking as a bandleader, the opposing view was best expressed by Martin Williams, the most persuasive jazz critic of the 1950s and '60s (and my mentor long before I knew him personally). "Jamal's real instrument is not the piano at all, but his audience," Williams wrote in 1961, caricaturing the artist's style thusly: "On some numbers, he will virtually sit things out for a chorus, with only some carefully worked out rhapsodic harmonies by his left hand or coy tinklings by his right. After that, a few bombastic block chords by both hands, delivered forte, will absolutely lay them in the aisles."

This in spite of Jamal's "interesting harmonic substitutions" and melodic "openness," complemented by the "very light and impeccably accurate rhythmic pulse" supplied by bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier. But weren't these the very qualities so admired by Davis and other musicians, along with Jamal's acrobatic use of dynamics and space for tension and release? For Williams, as for most of his critical brethren, Davis's stamp of approval only meant that "good art can be influenced by bad."

Such sharp disagreements between musicians and critics aren't as common as the former like to pretend, but this one was a doozy. Audiences obviously concurred with Miles: Jamal's Live at the Pershing spent more than two years on the charts, peaking at No. 3 behind Van Cliburn and Sing Along With Mitch in the fall of '58. But what has time decided? Which is to say, what do I think? In combination with the pleasure I've taken from hearing Jamal in concert over the years, the 9-CD The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions 1956–62 (Mosaic) tilts the evidence in Miles's favor.

Ahmad Jamal, basking in the all-important Miles Davis endorsement
Chuck Stewart
Ahmad Jamal, basking in the all-important Miles Davis endorsement
And don't forget the Sideman Exception.
Chuck Stewart
And don't forget the Sideman Exception.

Not that Williams was completely wrong. On limpid ballads and medium bounces like "Easy to Remember" and "That's All," those rhapsodic harmonies and coy tinklings puddle like condensation on Don Draper and Roger Sterling's cocktail napkins. Numbers like "Taboo" (with Crosby doubling bass and maracas) and even Hoagy Carmichael's "Ivy" skirt perilously close to bachelor-pad exotica. Doing "Too Late Now" as a beguine and "Autumn Leaves" as a bolero smacks of gimmickry, and too much bluesy ambience divorced from genuine blues feeling only set the stage for Ramsey Lewis and worse. (Anybody remember Quartet Tres Bien?)

But Jamal's plentiful virtues are also on display throughout the box (available from MosaicRecords.com), and these begin with the understated emotional depth of those ballads—"Autumn in New York," for example, or a stunning "Two Different Worlds," the melodies approached from an odd angle, with an ear toward reharmonizing them. Though he wouldn't fully blossom as a composer till later, his scattered originals here—including the tender "Selerito" and the sinuous, through-composed "Aki and Ukthay"—are handsomely lyrical. During this period, Jamal had a knack for alerting improvisers to overlooked jazz potential in the most unlikely places: "On Green Dolphin Street" is just the most famous example of a tune that subsequently entered the standard repertoire (albeit with a big boost from Miles).

And then there's "Poinciana," Live at the Pershing's breakout FM hit and arguably the most unlikely Jamal vehicle of all, though still his signature tune decades later—a moony ode to the trees and the "rhythmic savage beat" of the jungle that was a minor hit for Bing Crosby in 1944. (Benny Carter lent it jazz credibility with an instrumental cover that same year.) Jamal strips it to the essentials, then expands on them. Great pop as well as then-state-of-the-art jazz, it lures you in with Fournier's bass-drum and keeps you in suspense through seven-plus minutes of syncopations, cross-rhythms, and crescendos.

In the '50s, jazz fans overcame their differences of opinion by dint of what might be called The Sideman Exemption: You might not dig Brubeck (or Oscar Peterson, or the MJQ), but everybody dug Paul Desmond (and Ray Brown, and Milt Jackson). On "Poinciana," when Crosby almost subliminally segues from an ostinato to a four-four walk, or when Fournier suggests both mambo and New Orleans second-line with the same series of drumstrokes, it's tough to imagine anyone not digging them, whatever your feelings about Jamal—the steadiness of their beat even as they ricochet between time signatures allows him the options of digging in or phrasing dancingly behind it. Like Erroll Garner (whose style could also verge on cocktail, and to whom he's frequently compared), Jamal's approach is orchestral, but he aims to evoke a big band's shadings and only incidentally its roar. With Jamal, bass and drums are never just along for the ride, as they usually were with Garner, whose piano was an orchestra unto itself.

The Complete Argo Sessions is only complete as far as it goes. Though the set starts with an early version of the trio with Walter Perkins on drums, it doesn't include the sessions with Crosby and guitarist Ray Crawford that first caught Miles's ear (if not the public's), and 1965's "Extensions," actually on which Jamal beat many of that era's avant-gardists at their own game, lies outside its timeframe. A session featuring a string orchestra arranged by violinist Joe Kennedy, and another adding Crawford and the underrated Kennedy to the basic trio, achieve their modest charms at the cost of intruding on Jamal's conversation with Crosby and Fournier. But as ever with Mosaic, an abundance of discographical mysteries are solved—not least the province of a longer and even more elegant and subtle live "Poinciana" from '61 that was misidentified as the '58 original when it surfaced on a GRP anthology several years ago.

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