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Q&A: Ahmad Jamal

We caught up with the legendary jazz pianist ahead of his show in Bengaluru this weekend

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Sunil Sampat Jun 30, 2014
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Ahmad Jamal. Photo: David Atlas/Corbis Images

Ahmad Jamal. Photo: David Atlas/Corbis Images

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 album Saturday Morning came out last year, while his 2012 album Blue Moon 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  form, third stream, electronic to fusion. However, Ahmad Jamal has seemingly  remained oblivious to these changes, carried on in his style and yet  remained immensely popular. This must be unique in your fast changing  medium. How do you do it?  

My birthplace is unique! Pittsburgh,  Pennsylvania has produced some of the most compelling and  influential musicians and others in various  fields. Earl Wild, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, George Benson, Billy  Eckstein (vocalist and musician),Gene Kelly (dancer), playwright August  Wilson, artist Andy Warhol and many  others. In addition to its great  contributions to the arts, all of us are singularly different and have our  own unique approach.

 

Your music from the early days (the Fifties) sounds  fresh after all these decades. What do you think is the reason behind its timelessness?

Repertoire acquired and  performed for over six decades, that includes many of my own  works.

 

You  will forever be associated with “Poinciana” – with good reason. Personally,  I still get amazed by your playing part of the French National Anthem in  your live version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy”. What do you call that? Humor,  audacity or tongue in cheek? Nobody else seems to take such licenses.  

Artistic license  is universal, and certainly not unique to me  only. Without all those elements in all forms of music, including joy and sadness and many other elements, it becomes a statement without meaning.

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Almost every pianist emerging when you did into the jazz  scene carried the influence of Art Tatum. You are one notable exception. How  did you develop your unique style of playing piano and were you influenced  by anybody?

I was  influenced greatly by Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, and others. But it is essential that you discover yourself and  develop your own approach. I was in a “jam session” with Art Tatum in attendance  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;   your use of space, the controlled increase and decrease of volume and  sense of time is unique. How did you develop these techniques?

Discipline.

 

Your compositions impressed Miles Davis and he even recorded some of  them. Were you similarly influenced by any of your contemporaries? Speaking  of which, who have been your favorite jazz musicians, both pianists and  others. 

Erroll Garner, pianist from my  native Pittsburgh, was one of the most influential in my  career.I have also been greatly  influenced by those who are instrumentalists outside of  pianists. Ben Webster [tenor saxophonist], Dizzy Gillespie [trumpeter], Charlie Parker,  and others.

 

Your recording of “Pavanne” in about 1955  states part of the melody from John Coltrane’s “Impressions”, which came  much later!  Is there a connection or was Coltrane also inspired  by your work? Something similar is heard in Miles’, “So What”.  

Interesting…I have heard this many, many,  times. You be  the judge.

 

Your versions of contemporary musicians’  work have been very well received. For example on Wayne Shorter’s  “Footprints”, you sound so contemporary!  What’s the secret?  

Contemporary? Each day I discover new things. It is not a matter of  “contemporary”, it is a matter of constant evolution and evolving and  discovery if one is  fortunate.

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This modern trend in jazz of learning how to play the music at one of several schools that now exist – we have one  in Mumbai too – can jazz techniques be ‘taught’ or is that an inherent  contradiction in terms? Is jazz not much more individual style and instinct?  

American Classical  Music/Jazz has to be studied like any other  form. We have thousands of students from all over the world enrolled in  various institutions, and rightly  so.

 

What do you think of fusion? Where is jazz  headed in the near future?

This music dictates its own future by its power and its  contribution to the world’s culture.

 

We see that you play only on a certain  model of a (Steinway) acoustic piano and are very particular on its  parameters. Yet you have recorded on electric pianos in the past. Have you  now decided to play only on this upper ended acoustic piano? Is the electric  phase over?  

My affair with the digital piano was brought about by Herbie  Hancock, when I was producing recordings from 1969 until 1972, and Herbie was  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  Rhodes (invented by the late Harold Rhodes, the great scholar, and inventor  and who became a great friend and supporter of mine). Herbie asked me to try it when  it was delivered to the studio and subsequently, I endorsed the Fender Rhodes  and Mr. Rhodes sent me one and sent one to Herbie.

I do not use the digital (electric piano) on stage  anymore or record with it. I confine my performances to The Steinway concert grand and have been with  Steinway for over 50 years. I do require a digital piano in my suite in various hotels when on the road for 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.

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