Friday, January 21, 2011

A Few Phrases in Appreciation of Ahmad Jamal

Of all the arts music seems to me the most difficult on which to write. One may think that for me, a jazz pianist and composer, the task might be lightened by my knowledge of and ability to write and perform some of the music that would be discussed. But as the jazz pianist Bill Evans remarked, a sensitive layman may know more about music and be able to judge it better than a professional. Ideally a critic should be that sensitive layman.

Also I am often disappointed and weary by much of music criticism. On the one hand it is too sociological, too concerned with a musician's ancestry and what he had for breakfast and what, if any, drugs were taken. On the other hand the criticism writes about music as if music were but a symbol or code for something unmusical. I aim to correct these trends in a few brief phrases on Ahmad Jamal. I hope to create not a mere impressionist criticism, with vague adjectives, nor a technical or cultural criticism with emphasis on biography, politics, or musical theory, but something akin to the aesthetic values that merit a close reading of the artist in question.

Firstly, some general words about Jamal. At eighty years old, and after the recent deaths in the past couple of years of Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson, Jamal is one of the last living masters of the jazz piano, in particular the piano trio form, still working. Jamal can generally be described as working in a modern post-bop style that developed in the fifties and sixties. He will often play standards with somewhat familiar ways of groove making from a bassist and drummer. He had popular hits in the fifties with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums, the biggest probably his recording of Poinciana.

But to mention those general signposts is to miss what is really exceptional about Jamal.

Jamal is one of those rarest of jazz artists who is sui generis. This places him in the canonical company of figures like Charlie Parker.

To talk about Ahmad Jamal is to talk seriously about the eternal musician's dream of having a sound that is truly one's own.
Although he works in traditional tonality, with steady grooves of swing, funk or Latin, and though his work bears resemblance at times to rather commercial genres - to the point where some of his music might fit into even a "smooth jazz" format - Jamal, to my ears, is the one of a handful of pianists to have developed an approach to phrasing and motivic development such that I can readily identify him after a few notes of a single bar, in seconds.

It is not so much production of tone itself that makes Jamal so immediately identifiable (tone being a clear identity from so many jazz greats from Miles Davis to Coltrane and Keith Jarrett) but his wildness of phrasing.

Jamal will work figures from all walks of musical life into his improvisations: so heavy with quotations and allusions from the popular to the classical, so abrupt is his approach to musical line, that he can be considered a cubist in jazz. He is doing in jazz something akin to Picasso or Kurt Schwitters in visual art, or closer to home, he is like the Charles Ives of jazz piano.

Like Herbie Hancock, but of a prior generation, Ahmad Jamal's interest is in what Hancock called "controlled freedom", that is, in using an Avant-Garde approach in the context of tonality rather than atonality and regular rather than destabilized form: an Avant-Garde attitude in a decidedly non-avant-garde setting. There is no essential deviation from underlying form yet what is on top is pure deviation, full of bluster, wit, and droll repartee. This interest in keeping with underlying form but deviating in the process is a uniquely American contribution to arts and letters. I find it in literature, in Walt Whitman and Thomas Pynchon, in American Feminist art especially where narration is all important but the point of view is ever so slightly shifted, and in the cinema of John Cassavetes and American neo-realists like Robert Kramer or Hal Ashby. And there are many other examples.

And from African-Americans we have jazz as a most shining example of the principle. In American modernism you will always have a narrative and dramatic conflict but it will be disguised and delayed in all sorts of ways. Like tonality in music, what you less often find, is an outright dismissal or destruction of, say, narrative altogether.

There is nothing Jamal plays that is not worked out from a repertoire of perhaps finite material. But, and this is the important matter, it seems infinite because one never knows which tune Jamal will pick and at which moment. Unlike Hancock, Jamal is not primarily interested in the long, chromatically complex line, but rather orchestral passages more akin to traditional popular solo piano playing or swing and R&B bands from an earlier time. Duke Ellington comes to mind, who had a similar interest in arpeggios and popular tropes. (It is noteworthy that detractors of Jamal liken him to a lounge pianist.) Of course the same was said about Bill Evans). If Jamal does uses chromaticism he will, play, abruptly and most straightforwardly, a chromatic scale, as can be heard below. However anyone doubting that Jamal is a master of melodic line as much as orchestral collage should listen in particular to his solo on "All The Things You Are" on Chicago Revisted: Live At Joe Segal's. It is so lyrical and so subtle and so lengthy line, one might mistake it for a passage of Keith Jarrett's!

James Commack, his current masterful bassist, told me that playing with Jamal is like a combination of playing in a rock jam band like the Grateful Dead and playing with a great string quartet. Ears have to be open because a listener literally does not know from measure to measure which one of those surprise attacks or figures Jamal will pull out of the keyboard. There is a great deal of planning here: Jamal has said he has worked arranged chords from the chordal root up rather precisely, and yet there is the greatest freedom. The resultant effect is of a jazz music that is more full of joy than in anybody else I can think of, and, given the wildness of Jamal's changes from measure to measure, a sense of anarchic comedy akin to the energy of The Marx Brothers or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby on screen.

Commentators and critics have all too often missed Jamal as the innovator he was. Arguably he was one of the earliest "fusion" artists, using popular non-swing grooves even before Ramsey Lewis and Miles Davis. He was an incredible influence on Miles Davis to the point where many of Davis' ideas about musical space and surprise are in part taken from Jamal. Ahmad Jamal told me in a brief conversation I was fortunate to have with the man how disappointed he was with the PBS jazz series by Ken Burns, how much was missed by its restriction to a narrow narrative of large and general stylistic shifts and schools.

Today at eighty Jamal has never played wilder, his energy approaches the insane, betraying a tendency one finds in certain artists where they become ever more truly themselves in their "late" periods (Federico Fellini in film and Henry James in prose being the best examples of this happy occurrence).

One of the reasons for Jamal's importance is that he is an illustration of a principle summarized by the English critic Stephen Booth:

"Great works of art are daredevils. They flirt with disasters and, at the same time, they let you know they are married forever to particular, reliable order and purpose."
Here is a most representative example of all of the features of Jamal's playing, in a personal favorite composition of his, "Bellows." Ahmad Jamal: in two parts.

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