The list of living musicians who made great records in the 1950s is dwindling, but the living legend Ahmad Jamal distinguishes himself further by making great records into the 2010s. Even given his remarkable consistency of quality, last year’s Blue Moon was a triumph, an unequivocal choice on my Best of 2012 Jazz list.
Turning 83 hadn’t slowed down Jamal and next week he offers up another youthful program of mostly new originals and a few cover ballads. Saturday Morning was recorded in France this time but carries over his backing help intact: Reginald Veal (bass), Herlin Riley (drums) and Manolo Badrena (percussion). As before, Badrena’s presence tactfully enhances the groove factor, and the three work together well as a solid unit freeing up Jamal to do his thing.
The opening track “Back To The Future” is as brisk as a cold January morning, the rhythm vacillating between contemporary Latin rhythm and good ol’ 4/4 swing. Jamal plays with a dynamism that always stops short of filling up all the space, so the rhythm section can breathe. However, “I’ll Always Be With You” is vintage Jamal, too, but in a different way: he plays around the melody made famous by Doris Day, which only serves to illuminate it, using a little friskiness and a lot of majesty. Riley seems to have picked up from Jamal’s cues because he drums in much the same way.
Some of Jamal’s compositions have split personalities, like “Edith’s Cake.” It has a deceptive intro in which Jamal hints at dissonance, but the song unfolds into a gentle groove held firmly in place by Veal’s repeating figure. Jamal unexpectedly leads that into another direction toward the end. The band is very responsive to his whims, and Jamal succeeds in the unexpected changes because his instincts are good. “Firefly” also has a similar, multiple-motif structure.
Some songs just have good grooves, like the titular song and “The Line.” On the former, Jamal jams for ten minutes, never running out of ideas, and has the wisdom to distribute them unhurriedly. On the latter, the leader plays very lively over a funky, reggae progression that Badrena reinforces with the extra percussion that’s sharp and nonintrusive. Jamal coyly shadows Veal’s circular bass figure amidst all the playing around it that he does. “One,” which was written for Jamal years ago by the late Sigidi Abdallah, is a foot-tapping, head-nodding three-note figure funky groove that shows just how deep in the pocket Jamal can get. Badrena and Riley meanwhile are super tight together.
For Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” Jamal repeatedly inserting that rolling chord from “Take The A Train” and various obscured quotes from other songs. However, Jamal never keeps his eyes (or ears, rather) off of the classic character of the song.
Whether it’s Ahmad Jamal’s own songs or someone else’s, he’s as penetrating, inventive, tasteful — and youthful — as he ever was. Hardly a living museum piece even after a six decade career influencing everyone from Miles Davis to McCoy Tyner, he can still make records that I can listen to all day, and Saturday Morning is another latter-career gem that’s hard to get tired of.
Saturday Morning is set for release September 10 by Jazz Village Records.