Ahmad Jamal – Blue Moon (2012)

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photos: Frank Capri

With the death of Hank Jones a couple of years ago, Ahmad Jamal might now be considered the dean of jazz pianists, but in all likelihood, he’s long been more influential than even the highly regarded Jones. He was one of the first pianists of the modern jazz era to embrace the principle “less is more,” making use of pauses and spaces, and coil back to make the moments he strikes chords carry more drama. Jamal will often play ahead and behind the melody while staying rhythmically aware and picks and chooses the moments within a song when he wants to go aggressive and when to hang back. These peculiarities of his attracted the notice of his contemporary Miles Davis, who quite clearly adapted these mannerisms to his trumpet and even preached these principles to generations of protégés.

This month brought the issuance of his latest record, a set of mostly standards entitled Blue Moon, just months shy of the 82nd birthday. With the Jamal Style on full display, he is playing with the vitality and immediacy he had at 32. Using a new base trio with Reginald Veal (double bass) and a returning Herlin Riley (drums) seems to have revitalized him, but the secret weapon is a forth member, percussionist Manolo Badrena.

Badrena last appeared on 2008’s It’s Magic, and invariably shows up on Jamal albums from time to time. In an album full of covers done to death, Jamal seemed to understand he’d have to seriously shake up the tired, old arrangements if he was going to hold anyone’s attention no matter how well he played them, and making it a bit more percussive and even groove-oriented was the way to do that. This is where Badrena, a veteran from Weather Report’s Heavy Weather days, makes a difference. With Riley and Badrena strategically a bit more up front in the mix (I have to give credit to Jamal for that, as he was the record’s producer), the songs encourage movement.

Even a historically elegant ballad like “Invitation” turns into an invitation to dance, thanks to the rhythm section being locked down on an Afro-Latin rhythm so seductive you don’t even want it to end, even after it finally does end some thirteen minutes after it starts. The Rodgers-Hart song for which the album is named (YouTube below) likewise starts with Veal’s relentless, repeating pattern, a Riley/Badrena beat bliss and Jamal free to roam around the melody, occasionally visiting the rhythm section and venturing back out again. “This Is The Life” even employs a contemporary funk tempo but Jamal never goes outside his own skin to reconcile to the rhythm; the rhythm comes to him.

“Autumn Rain” is one of three Jamal compositions on the record, previously taped with Riley and Badrena twenty-five years earlier. Here, Jamal gets friskier with the melody over a laid back groove that’s picked up better on this recording. “Morning Mist” by contrast, moves through a variety of moods and in the process, a variety of Ahmad’s methods of attack. “I Remember Italy,” as with “Gypsy” and “Laura” is treated as a ballad, but with Jamal playing solo piano for much of the song. The other musicians play in such a discreet way so as not to disturb Jamal’s vibe, a sharp contrast to the “groove” tunes where they dictate the tempo instead.

The inclusion of “Woody’n You,” which ends the album, seems so appropriate here. The first time Jamal recorded it was for the live At The Pershing album in 1958, the same record that made “Poinciana” his signature tune. Coming full circle to that time, even with the rhythm section churning out a samba underneath him instead of a 4/4 shuffle, this is unmistakably the same, very original pianist who first made waves back then.

Blue Moon is another wavemaker by Ahmad Jamal.

Blue Moon was released February 14 by Jazz Village Records.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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