Last week I saw Ahmad Jamal at the Dakota jazz club. It was a great show, and even though Jamal is turning 80 this year, he shows no signs of slowing down. To those who don't know, Ahmad Jamal is one of the most significant jazz pianists of the last 60 years. He has almost always recorded in a trio setting, and his early recordings from the 1950's heavily influenced Miles Davis. Miles would tell his piano player Red Garland to "sound more like Ahmad Jamal." And Miles covered some of Ahmad's tunes, like "New Rhumba" on "Miles Ahead." That's a pretty big deal, to influence Miles Davis. Miles even said, "All of my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal. I live until he makes another record." Wow. Ahmad's use of space in his solos seems to have influenced Miles the most. Like Miles, Jamal was not a virtuoso, and was able to say more with less in his solos. Interestingly enough, despite how much Miles liked Ahmad, as far as I know, he never made an attempt to record with the pianist. It's too bad, they could have made some beautiful music together. But Jamal was always a frontman, and he might not have been happy playing second fiddle to Miles. Jamal had a major popular hit with his recording of the song "Poinciana" in 1958, which propelled the album, "But Not For Me: Ahmad Jamal Live at the Pershing," to near the top of the pop charts. Jamal never again captured so much mainstream attention, but he has remained a fixture on the jazz scene.
How do I describe Jamal's playing style? He's not a virtuoso like Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson, and he's not as bluesy as Ramsey Lewis. He doesn't have the same rhythmic drive that Dave Brubeck does. He has some of the same lyricism that Bill Evans had, maybe this is why Miles Davis liked Bill Evans so much. Jamal is quick on the keys when he needs to be, but he never shows off his technique. Suffice it to say, he has a style all his own. Jamal is still a force to be reckoned with in concert. He pounds out powerful chords, and the dynamics of a song will change several times, from soft to loud in an instant. His group is totally in sync with him, bass and drums in close conversation with his piano. (There was also a percussionist, but honestly, he wasn't my favorite part about the concert.) Jamal really listens to his sidemen when they solo, and his concerts seem like true collaboration. Most of the songs they played were from his latest CD, "A Quiet Time." Songs like "Paris After Dark," "After Jazz at Lincoln Center," and "The Blooming Flower," showed that Jamal is still writing and performing at a very high level. He still takes such pleasure in playing, and that makes him fun to watch. And he still plays "Poinciana," not exactly the same way he did in 1958, but he still incorporates many of the improvisations he added then. And it still sounds fresh. If you ever have a chance to see Ahmad Jamal, go see him.