Ahmad Jamal, Vindicated

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

Dig him or not, Jamal is always recognizably Jamal. Dick Hyman is his antithesis, a veteran pianist whose deepest loyalty is to Art Tatum and the swing era, though he's able and willing to subsume himself in any material put before him, from ragtime to something approximating free improvisation. "When I address a particular idiom, I try to lose my individuality and become it," he recently told DownBeat. Tom Lord's The Jazz Discography lists close to 100 sessions under Hyman's name, and that's not even counting his '70s Moog albums or such easy-listening oddities as The Sensuous Piano of "D." (He might be publicly best known as musical coordinator for dozens of Woody Allen films). The new Dick Hyman's Century of Jazz Piano, an Arbors Jazz release boxing five CDs and a DVD show-and-tell, is a triumph as both a convincing revisionist history and a chameleon's vindication.

For Hyman, the story begins with Louis Moreau Gottschalk's mid-19th-century cakewalks; along with Joplin, Morton, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller, he also ushers into the canon Gershwin's piano rolls, Zez Confrey and Rube Bloom's '20s novelties, and Little Brother Montgomery's blues. Even if the more-or-less-chronological presentation is occasionally jarring—Joe Sullivan's "Little Rock Getaway" and an assortment of boogie-woogies sound like throwbacks following Bix Beiderbecke's "In a Mist," a visionary 1927 work whose impressionistic harmonies and stop-and-go rhythms have more in common with Ellington's "The Clothed Woman" and later works by Monk and Bill Evans—Hyman's touch is remarkably consistent. Ragtime and other pre-swing styles have largely fallen into the hands of period specialists and classical virtuosi letting their hair down; here's a full-fledged jazz pianist who matches any of them for accuracy, while besting all of them in adding idiomatic variations when he deems it appropriate.

The collection starts to flag once Hyman passes bebop, if only because the influence of pianists like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner is so pervasive today we hardly need someone to remind us. That said, he captures Keith Jarrett's rolling, white-gospel flavorings perfectly, and I prefer his interpretation of Chick Corea's "Spain" to the genuine article—ditto his George Shearing. In the end, Hyman emerges as one of a kind, a kind extremely difficult to pin down.

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.

Let me finish with a digression. Everything you've heard about the harmolodic showdown with Ornette Coleman that climaxed Sonny Rollins's 80th-birthday concert at the Beacon last month is true. If not history in the making, the first encounter between our two greatest living saxophonists on an American stage at least counted as history amended. But there were spectacular turns by Jim Hall and Roy Hargrove even before Rollins brought out his surprise guest, and I swear this was two and a half hours of some of the very best live Sonny Rollins I've ever heard. There's little chance of him reading this, and even less chance of him asking me for advice, or I'd beg him to release the concert in its entirety. So if necessary, call your Congressman.

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