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Ahmad Jamal Weaves Old And New On 'Saturday Morning'

Oct 9, 2013
Originally published on October 9, 2013 2:26 pm

Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal started playing when he was 3 years old in Pittsburgh, which means he's now been playing for 80 years. His new album, Saturday Morning, often recalls his elegant trios of yesteryear, with its tightly synchronized arrangements, plenty of open space and deceptively simple charm.

Jamal's old trios were quieter — it's no surprise when a pianist plays with lots of energy in youth, and then with more reserve when he or she is older. But Jamal has gone the other way: Over time, he's become more expansive. Bassist Reginald Veal and New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley bring hardcore swing and funk to his new record.

In the composition "Back to the Future," Jamal slips in an on-the-nose quote from "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Jamal is a grand master of seasoning his solos with obvious or covert fragments of songs he's been collecting all his life. Sometimes, those quotes reflect his personal history. A snippet of Morton Gould's light classic "Pavanne" in the midst of "Firefly" rings bells in the distance. Jamal recorded a cover of "Pavanne" in the 1950s, and his version inspired both Miles Davis' "So What" and John Coltrane's "Impressions." Jamal shows he was tuned to AM radio in the '60s, as he quotes The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and The Association's "Windy." But a witty quote alone isn't enough: It's about where you put it.

Ahmad Jamal loves misdirection; he'll sound like he's introducing one tune when he's really lining up another. He rephrases the beginning of 1935's "I'm in the Mood for Love" to resemble "I'll String Along with You," written the year before. That makes a subtle point about how composers rework colleagues' ideas, just as improvisers do.

The pianist combines his love of quotation and misdirection in Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," where Jamal keeps mixing in other 1941 Ellingtonia: "Just Squeeze Me" (also from the show Jump for Joy) and the piano intro to Duke's then-new theme, "Take the 'A' Train," by Jamal's friend from his Pittsburgh days, Billy Strayhorn. The pianist weaves three related tunes into one memory.

One more thing Ahmad Jamal never tires of: the lilt he gets from Afro-Caribbean rhythms. In his first trio, Ray Crawford faked bongo beats on guitar strings; in the current quartet, Manolo Badrena brings out the Latin accents on bongos and conga. He also courageously still uses chime rack and flexatone, long after other percussionists have moved on.

I confess the newer, splashier Ahmad Jamal can send me back to his quietly precise early trios. He's not playing the way he did 60 years ago, now that he's finished warming up.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal started playing piano when he was three years old in Pittsburgh, which means he's been playing for 80 years. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Jamal doesn't sound like he's getting tired of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIREFLY")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Ahmad Jamal's "Firefly" from his new CD "Saturday Morning." That tune's virtues recall his elegant trios of yesteryear - the tightly synchronized arrangement with plenty of open space and the deceptively simple charm. But his old trios were quieter. It's no surprise when a pianist plays with lots of energy in youth and then with more reserve when they're older.

Jamal has gone the other way. Over time he's become more expansive and funkier. Bassist Reginal Veal and New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley bring hardcore swing and the funk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Ahmad Jamal slipping in an on-the-nose quote from "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Jamal is a grand master of seasoning his solos with obvious or covert fragments of songs he's been collecting all his life. Sometimes those quotes reflect his personal history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: That snippet of Morton Gould's light classic "Pavanne" rings bells in the distance. Jamal recorded it in the 1950s, and his version inspired both Miles Davis's "So What" and John Coltrane's "Impressions." Jamal shows he was tuned to AM radio in the '60s, quoting The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and The Association's "Windy." But a witty quote alone is not enough: it's where you put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Ahmad Jamal loves misdirection. He'll sound like he's introducing one tune when he's really lining up another. He rephrases the beginning of 1935's "I'm in the Mood for Love" to resemble "I'll String Along with You," written the year before. That makes a subtle point about how composers rework colleagues' ideas, the same as improvisers do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: The pianist combines his love of quotation and misdirection on Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good." Jamal keeps mixing in other 1941 Ellingtonia: the tune "Just Squeeze Me" and the piano intro to Duke's then-new theme, "Take the 'A' Train," by Jamal's friend from Pittsburgh days, Billy Strayhorn. He weaves three related tunes into one memory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: One more thing Ahmad Jamal never tired of: the lilt he gets from Afro-Caribbean rhythms. In his first trio, Ray Crawford faked bongo beats on guitar strings; in the current quartet, Manolo Badrena brings out the Latin accents on bongos and conga. He also courageously still uses chime rack and flexatone, long after other percussionists moved on.

I confess the newer, splashier Ahmad Jamal can send me back to his quietly precise early trios. He's not playing the same way he did 60 years ago. Now he's finished warming up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, DownBeat, and eMusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Saturday Morning," the new recording by Ahmad Jamal on his Jazz Village label. You can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair to find out what's coming up on our show, read interview highlights, and learn more about what's happening behind the scenes at FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.