There are few musicians who can claim a 75-year career. The 92-year-old living legend, pianist Ahmad Jamal, a perfectionist of the highest order, has countless live performances that never made it to record. Even for these recently issued Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse (1963-64) and (1965-66) it took plenty of convincing by producer, the “Jazz Detective” Zev Feldman before Jamal relented. Jamal supervised all of these recordings. Feldman then took this fortuitous sign as an opportunity to launch his own new imprint, fittingly Jazz Detective with Deep Digs Music Group, in partnership with Spain’s Elemental Music, which has spawned previous Feldman projects.
The venue, Seattle’s Penthouse, should be familiar to most as it was the site for John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme Live in Seattle as well as previous issues from Cannonball Adderley, Bola Sete, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Johnny Griffin and Eddie ‘Lockjaw” Davis, and Harold Land. These were all issued in the last decade. There are undoubtedly more. Word is that another Jamal for 1966-67 is on the way as well.
As with Feldman projects, both packages come with elaborate booklets featuring interviews with pianists Ramsey Lewis, Jon Batiste, Kenny Barron, Aaron Diehl, and Jamal’s biggest mentee, Hiromi. There are a wealth of essays and never before seen photos. All are trio recordings, the ’63-64 set with bassists Richard Evans and Jamil Nasser and drummer Chuck Lampkin. The ’64-65 set has Nasser exclusively on bass with three different drummers – Lampkin, Vernel Fournier, and Frank Gant. Altogether across the four CDs, with only nineteen tracks, we have five and a half hours of music.
There are two things that most people, even casual jazz listeners, know about Ahmad Jamal. His 1958 live recording Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Pershing: But Not for Me was one of the biggest jazz records of its time and essentially made Jamal a household name. The album stayed on the best-selling list for 100 weeks. It did not come without some controversy, however. A critic used the term “cocktail music’ when describing Jamal. History has certainly proved that pronunciation about as wrong as can be. Just read the excerpts from the pianists weighing in for this booklet, should you have any doubts. Maybe a lesser-known fact is that Jamal was Miles Davis’s favorite pianist. Like Davis, Jamal was a visionary, establishing groove and rhythm patterns that were well ahead of his time to the extent that Jamal is one of the most sampled artists in the history of hip-hop.
In the ’63-64 set, there are seven standards from The Great American Songbook, the likes of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers, and others. It also has one original from Jamal and two from bassist Evans. Four appear on the first disc with Evans and six on the second with Nasser, tracks ranging from six minutes to almost fourteen in length. Three or four things you’ll notice right away are Jamal’s fluid touch, his command of dynamics where he can go from a hush to an explosion in just seconds, and his use of space. He never seems hurried. Just the length of these selections indicates a high level of improvisation and ample room for the musicians to solo but none of it seems off the cuff. It comes across as classy during a time when most people’s visual image of a jazz club had men and women, like the performers, dressed to the nines.
Those images remain intact for ’65 and ’66. (Things started to change in 1967, the infamous “Summer of Love,” but lest we digress. In this package, we have four different dates and nine compositions in all. The first two sets are with Nasser and Lampkin, two tracks with Nasser and Fournier, and three with Nasser and Gant. Again, these are a mix of standard and originals with the Bricuse/Newly “Feeling Good” the highlight of CD 1, and two of Jamal’s most popular tunes closing CD2 – “Poinciana” and “Whisper Not,” both covered by countless artists, including Keith Jarrett. Now, do you really think Jarrett is a fan of ‘cocktail music’? Enough said on that score.
There’s a wealth of quotes that attest to the Jamal’s unparalleled reputation. Here’s the late Ramsey Lewis, who seems to come up in the same conversation with Jamal – “He uses a whole 88 keys on the piano. With many jazz piano players, the left hand comps and the right hand does a lot of work…And Ahmad is one of the both-hands piano players. Left hand, right hand: Ahmad can take care of the business.” Hiromi says, “What I really learned from his playing is when you improvise or when you write music, you have to tell stories. Jazz improvisation is made of a lot of scales and chord progression and everything you can learn from the book, but something you cannot learn from the book is telling your own story. And whenever he plays, I always feel he’s telling his story of life. And that’s how I want to be.”