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How Jazz Legend Ahmad Jamal Wowed Bengaluru

The 83-year-old American jazz pianist played a two-hour concert with his quartet in Bengaluru

Sunil Sampat Jul 06, 2014
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Ahmad Jamal live at Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Total Environment

Ahmad Jamal live at Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Total Environment

July 5th, Chowdiah Memorial Hall: This was legendary jazz pianist’s first-ever concert in India. He had celebrated his 83rd birthday on July 2nd and yet, had never played before in this country. Many jazz lovers in India still recall the musical recitals of American jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, American composer  Duke Ellington and trumpeter Louis Armstrong in the country during the 1960s, and of Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz among others in the 70s. This Ahmad Jamal concert is sure to evoke similar nostalgia in the future. Of course, I wished that he had played a longer multiple-city tour.

When we met him earlier on the day of his concert, Ahmad Jamal came through as an affable, friendly, modest and above all, a laidback person. This last attitude was (and always has) been obvious in his playing his well-tuned, state-of-the-art (Steinway) piano.

The standout hallmark of Jamal’s piano playing has been his use of space between notes. That is a fascinating aspect of his style of jazz. It is almost akin to listening to a fine orator who pauses, dwells just a little longer between words. You know what he might be saying next, but he will keep you waiting just a bit longer before delivering the next word! It is sure to grab your attention and keep you involved in the creative process. Ahmad Jamal is a complete master of this technique on the piano.  Sometimes, the notes he doesn’t play are as compelling as the ones he does.

At the concert in Bengaluru, he played in a quartet format with James Cammack on upright acoustic bass, Manolo Badrena on percussion and the sensational Herlin Riley on drums. The concert was almost two hours long without an intermission and kept the large audience enthralled throughout the performance.

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The musical arrangements were very democratic and each musician had the place and scope to express himself. Jamal was an equal opportunity employer! It was not necessarily meant to give scope to each musician as much as to arrive at very clever arrangements of the renditions. The use of both a drummer and percussionist in the band format was brilliant. There was the atmosphere created of a Cuban/Latin rhythm to the music almost all through the show. The subtle spaces that Jamal creates in his music were beautifully filled by the compelling rhythms. It was music you wanted to get up and dance to and it was indeed an effort to keep seated and be still. Here, drummer Riley takes most of the credit. He was placed at the centre of the band and in many ways, was the heart of the musical arrangements. He reminded me of the great Art Blakey who led The Jazz Messengers. Blakey would sit in the centre of the stage and would lead the sound of the band.  Riley must have been a very tired man at the end of his Bengaluru gig. He energized the band and allowed Jamal to exhibit his great subtlety at the piano.

Jamal’s art has been unique even among jazz pianists. Apart from his spacing of notes and subtle use of the ‘after beat’, Jamal goes soft and loud, using the volume from the piano keys to great effect, creating a tapestry of sounds. All these techniques were in evidence at his Bengaluru concert. I have heard him on two previous occasions and the man has just got better at what he already did well.

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The pianist, who has well absorbed musical influences from several cultures and incorporated them into his sound, began by playing three of his compositions based on sounds from the Middle East. He opened with “Baalbek”, citing his inspiration from Lebanon, and continued with “Avo” (which he said he was playing especially for one show’s organizer, Kamal Sagar). In both these pieces, the polyrhythms generated were compelling with almost minimal, but striking use of the piano. Jamal used the standard ballad to exemplify his method to approach. At one time, he started playing the Richard Rodgers composition sung by many including Frank Sinatra, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, which segued into another Rodgers hit “Have You Met Miss Jones” and then easily wandered elsewhere, all with great melodic and rhythmic sense. He also played Hoagy Carmichael’s, “Skylark,” which he opened with strains of “My Favourite Things” to brilliant effect.

He had to and did play his magnum opus, “Poinciana.” The audience cheered loudly as soon as they heard the opening notes.There are a few signature tunes in jazz that become one with their creator.  Dave Brubeck will forever be associated with “Take Five,” American trumpeter Lee Morgan with “The Sidewinder”, cornet and trumpet player Nat Adderley with “Work Song” and Ahmad Jamal with “Poinciana.” Here, Mr Jamal did not wander afield with variations. Why change a winning formula?  He played the piece as true to his original recording and yet, it sounded fresh and new. Even his improvisations have become a part of the standard.

The long, standing ovation was appropriate and the master pianist played a long encore to send the crowd home in excellent cheer. I bet a dime to a dollar that many pulled out Ahmad Jamal CDs and played them late into the Saturday night!


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