Q&A: Ahmad Jamal
We caught up with the legendary jazz pianist ahead of his show in Bengaluru this weekend
Ahmad Jamal, 83, a contemporary of the likes of American jazz composer and trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist Charlie Parker, will take a break from his summer tour of France and Belgium to play in Bengaluru this weekend. Miles Davis had often cited Jamal to be one of his biggest influences and also played his compositions. In a career spanning six decades, Jamal has released more than 60 albums and nine compilations. His most recent albumÂ Saturday MorningÂ came out last year, while his 2012 albumÂ Blue MoonÂ was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Jazz Instrumental category. In this interview, he discusses his own influences and the changing sound of jazz.
Jazz has changed in very definite ways from Bebop, post-bop, modal, free Â form, third stream, electronic to fusion. However, Ahmad Jamal has seemingly Â remained oblivious to these changes, carried on in his style and yet Â remained immensely popular. This must be unique in your fast changing Â medium. How do you do it? Â
My birthplace is unique! Pittsburgh, Â Pennsylvania has produced some of the most compelling and Â influential musicians and others in various Â fields. Earl Wild, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, George Benson, Billy Â Eckstein (vocalist and musician),Gene Kelly (dancer), playwright August Â Wilson, artist Andy Warhol and many Â others. In addition to its great Â contributions to the arts, all of us are singularly different and have our Â own unique approach.
Your music from the early days (the Fifties) sounds Â fresh after all these decades. What do you think is the reason behind its timelessness?
Repertoire acquired and Â performed for over six decades, that includes many of my own Â works.
You Â will forever be associated with “Poinciana” – with good reason. Personally, Â I still get amazed by your playing part of the French National Anthem in Â your live version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy”. What do you call that? Humor, Â audacity or tongue in cheek? Nobody else seems to take such licenses. Â
Artistic license Â is universal, and certainly not unique to me Â only. Without all those elements in all forms of music, including joy and sadness and many other elements, it becomes a statement without meaning.
Almost every pianist emerging when you did into the jazz Â scene carried the influence of Art Tatum. You are one notable exception. How Â did you develop your unique style of playing piano and were you influenced Â by anybody?
I was Â influenced greatly by Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, and others. But it is essential that you discover yourself and Â develop your own approach. I was in a “jam session” with Art Tatum in attendance Â when I was 14 years of age!
[It’s] One of the great memories of my musical life.
You are the original exponent of the “less is more” concept of jazz playing; Â Â your use of space, the controlled increase and decrease of volume and Â sense of time is unique. How did you develop these techniques?
Your compositions impressed Miles Davis and he even recorded some of Â them. Were you similarly influenced by any of your contemporaries? Speaking Â of which, who have been your favorite jazz musicians, both pianists and Â others.Â
Erroll Garner, pianist from my Â native Pittsburgh, was one of the most influential in my Â career.I have also been greatly Â influenced by those who are instrumentalists outside of Â pianists. Ben Webster [tenor saxophonist], Dizzy Gillespie [trumpeter], Charlie Parker, Â and others.
Your recording of “Pavanne” in about 1955 Â states part of the melody from John Coltrane’s “Impressions”, which came Â much later! Â Is there a connection or was Coltrane also inspired Â by your work? Something similar is heard in Miles’, “So What”. Â
Interesting…I have heard this many, many, Â times. You be Â the judge.
Your versions of contemporary musicians’ Â work have been very well received. For example on Wayne Shorter’s Â “Footprints”, you sound so contemporary! Â What’s the secret? Â
Contemporary? Each day I discover new things. It is not a matter of Â “contemporary”, it is a matter of constant evolution and evolving and Â discovery if one is Â fortunate.
This modern trend in jazz of learning how to play the music at one of several schools that now exist – we have one Â in Mumbai too – can jazz techniques be ‘taught’ or is that an inherent Â contradiction in terms? Is jazz not much more individual style and instinct? Â
American Classical Â Music/Jazz has to be studied like any other Â form. We have thousands of students from all over the world enrolled in Â various institutions, and rightly Â so.
What do you think of fusion? Where is jazz Â headed in the near future?
This music dictates its own future by its power and its Â contribution to the world’s culture.
We see that you play only on a certain Â model of a (Steinway) acoustic piano and are very particular on its Â parameters. Yet you have recorded on electric pianos in the past. Have you Â now decided to play only on this upper ended acoustic piano? Is the electric Â phase over? Â
My affair with the digital piano was brought about by Herbie Â Hancock, when I was producing recordings from 1969 until 1972, and Herbie was Â in the rhythm section along with Ron Carter and Grady Tate. I was recording the great saxophonist Sonny Stitt at the time. Herbie requested a Fender Â Rhodes (invented by the late Harold Rhodes, the great scholar, and inventor Â and who became a great friend and supporter of mine). Herbie asked me to try it when Â it was delivered to the studio and subsequently, I endorsed the Fender Rhodes Â and Mr. Rhodes sent me one and sent one to Herbie.
I do not use the digital (electric piano) on stage Â anymore or record with it. I confine my performances to The Steinway concert grand and have been with Â Steinway for over 50 years. I do require a digital piano in my suite in various hotels when on the road forÂ practice purposes. I have three at my studio at home along with two Steinway Concert Grands.
Ahmad Jamal performs at Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bengaluru on July 5th, 2014. Entry: Rs 1,000 and Rs 3,000. Tickets available here.