The legendary jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal is one of my musical heroes. He ranks up there with iconic jazz musicians such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, as well as Errol Garner and Lennie Tristano. While these others have all passed on, Jamal continues to record and tour at the ripe old age of 89. Jamal started playing piano professionally as a teen, and the great Charles “Teenie” Harris snapped a photo of a young Jamal around 1942, seated at an upright piano, propped up on a trumpet case. Almost 80 years later, Jamal still plays and sounds as great as ever.
In fact, I’ve been listening to Jamal’s latest album Ballades, which will be officially released on Friday, September 13. It features mostly solo piano pieces which he recorded while making his 2017 album, Marseille, at a studio just outside of Paris. These outtakes of popular standards and original compositions were actually never meant for release. The album starts with Jamal’s original song “Marseille,” the title track of his last album, but without lyrics. Then it turns to standards such as Sammy Cahn’s “I Should Care,” Johnny Burke’s “What’s New,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Spring is Here”—all done solo. It’s a rare outing for Jamal, who has never recorded a solo album in his long career. (The one other musician on Ballades is double bass player James Cammack, who plays on three tracks.)
Ballades was released only at the insistence of Jamal’s executive producer, Seydou Barry, and we are fortunate to have it. Solo piano distills Jamal’s genius to its essence—a distillation involving a lifetime of creative imagination and superb musicianship. It amounts to the full evolution of a life in music from one of our greatest musical artists. I also love his cover portrait by Studio Harcourt in Paris, done in old-school style with the studio signature on the lower right corner.
Listen to an original titled “Whisperings”—an early teaser from Ballades:
Ballades is a must for any Jamal fan. So is Blue Moon, recorded a few years ago with his quartet (James Cammack, bass; Herlin Riley, drums; Manolo Badrena, percussion). I also recommend Mosaic Records’s reissue of the original Argo sides, though copies are now hard to find and expensive. My only hope is that someday his later Cadet sides get reissued, both individually and as a box set.
When I was in my early 20’s, I listened to Jamal’s Naked City Theme, recorded in San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop in 1964, as a lullaby before going to bed. (My Garrard SL55 turntable had an automatic shut-off.) That music is etched permanently in my brain. Later, as a radio host, I interviewed Jamal many times and saw every show performed in town. An enthusiastic admirer once wrote to say she heard Jamal in 1962 in Casablanca, Morocco. Indeed, Jamal is loved, revered, and admired all over the world. His elegant music has always possessed a singular beauty and lyricism.
As a non-smoking and non-drinking Muslim, Jamal gives the lie to those who think jazz musicians are louches or addicts. He named one of his albums AfterFajr, in reference to the dawn prayer of the five daily prayers of Islam. He also opened a club in Chicago called Ahmad Jamal’s Alhambra in 1961, named after the medieval palace in Granada, Spain. No alcoholic beverages were served, and the club was forced to close after a short time due to insufficient revenue. Jamal recorded one album there for Argo.
I love this 1959 clip of Jamal performing “Darn that Dream” with his classic trio from the Argo years. You can see some jazz heavyweights in the audience enjoying the set. Can you name some of them? (Hint: a famous jazz critic, tenor saxophonist, and big band drummer.)
And in the 2012 video below, Jamal plays his signature song, “Poinciana”: