Sunday, January 8, 2017

Nat Hentoff on Ahmad Jamal

Nat Hentoff Original Liner Notes: Ahmad Jamal's The Legendary Okeh & Epic Sessions,1951-55

A few years ago Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal's most influential champion, reacted indignantly to my mumbled opinion that Ahmad Jamal was "mainly a cocktail pianist." Miles who had brought all the records Ahmad had made up to that time, began playing them, pointing out to this skeptical listener those elements of Jamal's playing that so intrigued him and that have since helped make Jamal a major force in the jazz record market and an increasingly powerful lure in personal appearances.

"Listen," Miles said then and later in an interview for The Jazz Review, "to the way Jamal uses space. He lets it go so that you can feel the rhythm section and the rhythm section can feel you. It's not crowded.

Like Miles on his instrument, Jamal sees no point in just running changes (constructing a solo by tobogganing through the chords) or in reveling in technique for its own sake. He plays with spare, resilient command of dynamics and with incisive knowledge of how important a part of music silence can be if you make it work for you.

One of the more coherent appreciations of Jamal was given by Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, a former sideman of Miles, in a record commentary in The Jazz Review. "The whole thing just flows . . .I don't think it's accurate to call Jamal a 'cocktail' pianist because I have to listen to Ahmad. He commands attention. One quality of his work that impresses me - a quality that Miles brought to my attention- is that he uses and creates very interesting interludes . .. It is true that Ahmad had influenced Miles Davis. Miles, for example, depends more on the rhythm section than he used to . . . Miles has also become fonder of tags and transitory passages since listening to Ahmad."

Cannonball returned to Jamal himself: ". . . He has a potful of technique, but he has learned restraint... Ahmad 's left hand is unobtrusive, but he established the groove with that left hand. Moreover, he doesn't allow a groove to become stagnant. First of all, he doesn't play many long things. After maybe a chorus, he'll go into an interlude that changes the mood, and then he'll go
out of the interlude into a different groove that's even more swinging than the first was...He also always gives the impression of having something strong in reserve. He doesn't try to put everything into each number ... 'Don't shoot everything in one tune, and play fifty choruses, it'll all sound the same,' he's told me...Ahmad also allows the tune to be the tune. He does what he does within the context of each particular song. He's not like the average jazz musician who uses pop tunes as a vehicle. Ahmad approaches each one as a composition in itself and tries to work out something particular for each tune that will fit it..."

Another aspect of Jamal's work is his penchant for aselect repertory that he keeps exploring for a long time. The reason , he explained in a recent conversation, is that he finds it possible to find new ways of expressing himself through some songs even after playing them hundreds of times. "It's true," he added, "that after a while I usually work out a particular approach to each tune, but within that framework I never play it exactly the same."

Ahmad's biography has been frequently outlined. Briefly, he was born in Pittsburgh, in 1930. He Worked with George Hudson's orchestra, and later formed his own unit. It was first called the Three Strings, and had a long engagement at the Blue Note in Chicago.: He came to New York in 1952 to play the Embers, and although he acquired a strong-and still ardent-campaigner in John Hammond, his initial success in New York was hardly epochal. He eventually replaced the guitar with drums in his trio, and for the past two years has suddenly found himself in lucrative demand throughout the country, including New York.

The change in status has had little overt effect on Jamal. A serious convert to Islam, he is little ruffled-or so it seems-by criticism or by the uncertainties of the music business. As Cannonball puts it, "he seems to be always at peace . . . He still doesn't do anything he doesn't
want to do, and he doesn't follow trends."

In conversation, Jamal projects the same serenity-with more than a touch of wit- that he communicates from the stand. He also clearly has a strength of will that has made it possible - in fact, necessary -for him to find and go his own way through the years, no matter what the critics wrote and no matter how apathetic some of the earlier audiences were. There is also the feeling of latent power in the man himself. At the Embers one night several years ago, annoyed beyond endurance by the perpetual artillery barrage of conversation in the room-no matter who was on the stand-Ahmad walked off in the middle of a set, and returned to Chicago. Now they listen.

There remains sharp critical controversy about Jamal, and even though more musicians than critics are beguiled by him, there is extensive debate about his place and value in jazz among the non-civilians as well. Most of even his harshest judges, however, would agree with one of them, bassist Bill Crow, who wrote that "his general conception has an undeniable charm." It is that almost ingenuous, airy, relaxed , floating charm that serves to identify Jamal instantly, and that has been the major factor in his large-scale acceptance among the jazz public. It is true that Jamal does not slash into the marrow of existence as do some pianists, but it is also true that in a time of general emulation, Jamal has created a whole, consistent musical personality that does not, as Cannonball underlined, follow fashion and that does cogently and lyrically express exactly what Jamal as a whole person wants to say.

In fact, the most attractive aspect of Jamal's playing to this listener is that there is no trace in it of a conscious posturing to be "hip," to be "aucourant." Jamal is himself when he plays, and that, after all, is what jazz is supposed to be all about.

In essence, to return to the protagonist of this program, Ahmad Jamal's "piano scene" is simply an extension of his "scene" wherever he is and whatever he's doing. He's a relatively uncomplicated person, who has found in religion and family life a calmness of spirit that is reflected in his music. It is not, however, a passive calm. He also remains - somewhat paradoxically-highly self-critical and constantly determined to make his points more clearly. He doesn't pay any attention to negative reviews, he once said, because he knows all too well that the worst reviews he ever gets are from Ahmad Jamal.

-- Nat Hentoff, 1956


  1. cant believe this was written in 1956. Here I am in 2012 after having discovered Ahmad Jamal through his 1956 album live at the Pershing and loving every track on the album. it sounds so fresh and original- it's just unreal. Ahmad Jamal is a living legend of Jazz-he is not the great Monk or another living legend Horace Silver-he is simply Ahmad Jamal!

  2. So true Basil. Last weekend I had the privilege to attend his concert in Dublin Ireland, and to meet him briefly afterwards. In these years since 1956 he has done so much musically, and his new output in his 80s is as strong as ever. Yet the man I met on Friday night was airy, serene, humble, comfortable in his skin, charming and kind. Long may he continue!