A Pianist Fully in Charge of Everything He Surveys

Ahmad Jamal stood up repeatedly from the piano at the Rose Theater on Thursday night, almost always during a song. His reasons had to do with the act of management, which plays an important role in his music. Sometimes he turned to face the rest of his rhythm section, as if to observe its progress or pass silent judgment. Sometimes he was making an announcement, or cuing the big band onstage. It was the kickoff for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new season, but the timing felt almost incidental. Mr. Jamal had the floor, unequivocally, and he wasn’t interested in behaving like a guest.

He has earned the right to his authority, of course. At one point in the concert’s first half, which featured his quartet, he noted that it was the 50th anniversary of “that record we made in Chicago,” referring to “At the Pershing: But Not for Me,” a landmark album. “And with your permission,” he added, drawing from that album, “ ‘Poinciana.’ “ His tone suggested the gentlemanly flourish of a museum director whisking the shroud off a treasured piece.

Not that Mr. Jamal, 78, has consigned his own work to the exhibition hall. He treated “Poinciana” the way most seasoned pros treat a signature hit: pragmatically. (If only he had better regulated the percussionist Manolo Badrena, whose tick-tock shaker work marred the airy lilt of the tune.) Elsewhere Mr. Jamal drew largely from “It’s Magic” (Dreyfus), an impressive album released just a few months ago.

Dynamic contrast is his trademark, and here, on a new song called “Papillon,” he went bananas with it. After a chiming prelude, he eased into fluttery waltz tempo, pulling along his responsive bassist, James Cammack, and his careful drummer, James Johnson. From that foundation he set off a cycle of stillness and disruption. He seemed invested in both the pebble and the pond.

Mr. Jamal takes pride in arranging his materials, and so each composition arrived in multiple sections. Typically there was a flag-waving introduction, in the spirit of Erroll Garner; vamping over a melodic mode; at least one shift in tempo, slow to fast and back again; and a left-field coda, based on yet another vamp. This treatment even extended to a few nonoriginals, including the saxophonist Jimmy Heath’s “Mellow Drama.”

It also applied to the three Jamal classics in the concert’s second half, which involved the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. But besides a portion of “Devil’s in My Den,” the arrangements felt unimaginative. For yawning stretches the members of the orchestra sat idle while the quartet did its thing.

But some excellent soloists stamped their identities on the tunes. The first was Wynton Marsalis, whose trumpet essay on “The Aftermath” was a thing of deceptively casual ingenuity. The alto saxophonist Sherman Irby, next up, created similar magic; so did Ted Nash, playing flute on “Should I.” Backing each of these musicians, Mr. Jamal appeared intently engaged. When he arose to make eye contact, he kept both hands on the keys.

by Nate Chinen
Source: New York Times

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