Two Modern Pianists: Dave Brubeck & Ahmad Jamal

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Dave Brubeck and Ahmad Jamal are two famous pianists. Aside from stylistic differences, the main distinction that separates them is that Brubeck had an alto sax player named Paul Desmond, who imbued all of Brubeck’s work with an infectious lyricism. Desmond also wrote the Brubeck quartet’s biggest hit, “Take Five”, for his best-selling 1959 album, Time Out.

Dave Brubeck’s best-selling 1959 album (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Brubeck loved big block chords. He studied the French impressionists with a French composer named Darius Milhaud, one of “Les Six” French composers that also included Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honegger. But it was Desmond, however, who provided the real melodic lyricism in Brubeck’s music.

Ahmad Jamal for me stands heads and heels over Brubeck. I have to be blunt here.  He is more interesting in his improvisations. More daring. His sense of touch, his elegance, his inventiveness. His technique and polish. His nuance. Jamal will often quote famous  popular melodies into his improvisations. His right hand speed and execution is simply beyond what Brubeck ever did.

Yet, this is just my opinion. Certainly Brubeck is more popular and has sold many more albums than Ahmad Jamal. It’s inexplicable and sad that Jamal’s Cadet recordings, which came after the earlier Argo releases, have never been reissued. I’ve bought the original LPs at Amoeba or wherever I could find them–either in good or scratchy condition.

This month in September, a new Ahmad Jamal album on Harmonia Mundi’s Jazz Village label was released: Saturday Morning. Click here to listen to a preview.

Ahmad Jamal’s new album, Saturday Morning (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Here is Ahmad Jamal performing “Darn that Dream” in 1959, watched by admirers like Ben Webster, Papa Jo Jones, Nat Hentoff, and others.

Here is Dave Brubeck performing his famous song “Take Five” in 1966.

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