The New York Times
November 11, 2001, Sunday


Ahmad Jamal: Always Making Jazz Seem New

THERE are great jazz musicians whose contributions to the art derive from the conceptual brilliance of their playing. Others go deeper and engage jazz's most fundamental elements to achieve a singular musical vision. The pianist Ahmad Jamal, who will appear this week at Iridium, epitomizes the latter. For 50 years he has exhibited his profound understanding of the formal aspects of jazz, turning his piano trio into an orchestra of American sound in motion. His music has not only had an inestimable effect on small-group jazz; at a time when innovation is confused with iconoclasm, it has also exemplified how originality can be achieved by examining and reworking what is often overlooked in jazz.

Mr. Jamal first reached a national audience with the release of ''But Not for Me,'' recorded at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago in 1958. The album, which includes Mr. Jamal's famous arrangement of ''Poinciana,'' spent two years on the Billboard charts, rare in any genre but unheard of in jazz. One reason for the record's success, to be sure, was its accessibility; Mr. Jamal's avoidance of bebop pyrotechnics and dissonant harmonies, his stealthy dynamics and the pop veneer of certain arrangements led some critics to dismiss him as an effete cocktail pianist, chic and shallow.

But innovation in jazz can be subtle. Rather than reaching outward to create an overtly revolutionary sound, Mr. Jamal explored the inner workings of the small ensemble to control, shape and dramatize his music. ''I don't think in single lines,'' he once said, ''I think in big-band concepts.''

Jazz improvisation is generally understood as a narrative melodic line composed spontaneously in relation to a song's harmonic structure. Mr. Jamal broadened this concept by using recurring riffs, vamps and ostinatos -- tropes of big-band jazz that were employed as background accompaniment for featured instrumentalists -- not just to frame solos, as many musicians did, but as the stuff of improvisation itself.

He further challenged the notion of background and foreground by exposing the bass and drums as front-line participants. Mr. Jamal elevated bass lines and drum grooves in the standard piano trio into integral elements of his music. By exchanging these roles in ways that built drama, he created a multilayered, flexible style, which could support a wide range of musical approaches in the course of a single piece. His arrangements are thus compositions in themselves, structures that manipulate formal elements to shade and illuminate a tune's various dimensions.

Mr. Jamal grew up in Pittsburgh and was exposed at an early age to its cosmopolitan musical culture. Jazz -- he prefers the phrase ''American classical music'' -- and the European repertory were considered equals.

''In Pittsburgh we didn't separate the two schools,'' he said. ''We studied Bach and Ellington, Mozart and Art Tatum. When you start at 3, what you hear you play. I heard all these things.'' So do we when we listen to his music; fragments from Ravel's ''Bolero'' and Falla's ''Ritual Fire Dance'' mingle with the blues, standard songs, melodic catch-phrases from bebop, and the ''Marseillaise.''

Mr. Jamal, who delivered newspapers to Billy Strayhorn's family as a youngster, began formal piano studies when he was 7 with the concert singer Mary Caldwell Dawson, the founder of the National Negro Opera Company, and later worked with the pianist James Miller.

When asked how he used to practice, Mr. Jamal replied, laughing: ''With the door open, hoping that someone would drive down my street in a big luxurious car and hear me!'' He added: ''I was never the practitioner in the sense of 12 hours a day, but I always thought about music. I think about music all the time.''

Mr. Jamal had an aunt who sent him sheet music of standard songs, and by the time he was 11 he had enough of a repertory to perform professionally with local musicians, some of whom were well into their 60's. He also learned how knowledge of a song's lyrics could deepen one's connection to its melody.

''I once heard Ben Webster playing his heart out on a ballad,'' Mr. Jamal said, referring to the tenor saxophonist. ''All of a sudden he stopped. I asked him, 'Why did you stop, Ben?' He said, 'I forgot the lyrics.' That's what Nat (King) Cole was talking about, 'You have learn to live with a song.' '' By the time he was 14, Mr. Jamal had played Liszt études in competition, become a member of the musicians' union and been hailed as a ''coming great'' by the pianist Art Tatum.

After graduating from high school, Mr. Jamal, who married at 17, put off plans to attend Juilliard and joined the George Hudson Orchestra. Later he worked with a succession of groups, including the Caldwells, a popular song and dance team, and the Four Strings, which featured the jazz violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. After Mr. Kennedy left the band, the Three Strings became, effectively, the Ahmad Jamal Trio, with Israel Crosby on bass and Ray Crawford on guitar. ''We were trying to follow in the footsteps of Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell,'' Mr. Jamal told an interviewer in 1981. Mr. Jamal settled in Chicago and worked as a sideman before forming his groundbreaking group with Mr. Crosby and the great New Orleans drummer Vernel Fournier.

In the early 50's, Mr. Jamal began to attract the jazz cognoscenti. After hearing the group perform at the Embers in New York, the producer John Hammond proclaimed Mr. Jamal a ''prodigious'' and ''unbelievably subtle'' performer and signed him to Okeh Records. Musicians began to study Mr. Jamal; Miles Davis said, ''All my inspiration today comes from Ahmad Jamal.'' Davis, impressed by Mr. Jamal's melodic pacing, understatement and supple touch, recorded some of Mr. Jamal's compositions, adapted tunes from his repertory and took his own sidemen to hear Mr. Jamal's performances to clarify the group sound he himself was trying to get.

IT is often said that a hallmark of Mr. Jamal's style is his use of space, or silence. More to the point, Mr. Jamal used his understanding of various kinds of dynamics -- involving volume, tone and melodic shape -- to achieve powerful effects. ''Musical dynamics are human dynamics,'' Mr. Jamal has said. Never a minimalist, he has always used his virtuosic command of the instrument to elicit infinite color from the keyboard, creating the maximum musical impact with the greatest ease.

The sound of his music has become more playful, exuberant and unpredictable over the years. The development, which Mr. Jamal attributes to the confidence he has gained as a performer, is interesting to trace. Mr. Jamal made a series of recordings in the 60's and early 70's that deserve as much attention as his earlier ones (it is unfortunate that only one from that period, ''The Awakening,'' is available on CD). ''Extensions,'' with Mr. Fournier and the bassist Jamil Nasser, is a kinetic tour de force that finds Mr. Jamal reaching under the piano lid plucking strings. On ''At the Top: Poinciana Revisited'' and ''Tranquility,'' which feature the drummer Frank Gant and Mr. Nasser, Mr. Jamal interprets pop hits of the day, ''The Look of Love,'' ''I Say a Little Prayer,'' and even the ''Theme From 'Valley of the Dolls,' '' in inventive ways that respect the integrity of the compositions.

Mr. Jamal's latest release, ''Olympia 2000,'' recorded live in France on his 70th birthday, features the tenor saxophonist George Coleman and another New Orleans drummer, Idris Muhammad. Where in his early work drama builds slowly and subtly, Mr. Jamal now follows whispers with primal screams. His playing has become utterly uninhibited, suffused with a kind of contagious joy whose emotional commitment makes nearly anything the band does work.

Mr. Jamal's influence has been absorbed and built upon by a younger generation of jazz musicians. ''I'm always overwhelmed by his brilliance,'' said the pianist Eric Reed. ''Everything he does is completely organic and original.'' Another pianist, Jacky Terrasson, who cites Mr. Jamal's touch and dynamic range as influences, has helped repopularize Mr. Jamal's ensemble ideas into his own groups.

Too often in jazz, innovation is seen as a break from tradition rather than an experimental regeneration of it. Ahmad Jamal's innovations are significant because they provide one example of how to take what works in jazz and make something new; how to see old things with new eyes. ''There's nothing new under the sun,'' Mr. Jamal said. ''We're not creative people; the most we can do is reflect creativity. That's what I wrestle with: the ability to be composed, serene and organized enough to reflect creativity properly. That's when wonderful things happen.''

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company