Ahmad Jamal enlivens normally reserved jazz crowd

By Eric Benson

Jazz audiences are not usually the ecstatic sort. Even when in the presence of a legend, jazz audiences tend toward respectful appreciation rather than raucous adoration. Any musical audience’s behavior is largely dictated by the venue. Since jazz is primarily played in small clubs, practices common to other musical idioms, such as standing ovations and encores, are largely eschewed. When you’re a club owner packing three sets into a night, you can’t afford to indulge a crowd.

In a concert hall however, these concerns are irrelevant. With the continuing success of programs like Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and the SBC Jazz Series at Symphony Center in Chicago, the concert hall is becoming an ever more common fixture in the jazz world, significantly altering the ways in which the audience responds to the music.

The two jazz concerts that University of Chicago Presents has staged-—last year’s rollicking performance by the Arts Ensemble of Chicago and this year’s pristine offering by the Ahmad Jamal Trio—have been wonderful examples of the different ways in which jazz can thrive in the concert hall setting. The Arts Ensemble’s music was obviously well suited for a large venue, both in its ebullient character and its instrumentation—notably the massive percussion apparatus played by Famoudou Don Moye.

Ahmad Jamal’s music, however, is delicate and restrained; in a space as large as Mandel Hall, Jamal’s subtle melodic whispers risk being engulfed by the cavernous expanse. Indeed at times during the performance the quiet intimacy of Jamal’s music was lost in the physical distance between player and audience. Yet for most of the evening, Jamal was able to overcome the difficulties of the setting and powerfully connect the audience to his music, crafting a performance that managed to be both sensitive and celebratory.

Jamal originally came to prominence in the ’50s, playing a sparse style of jazz piano that famously influenced Miles Davis during Davis’s transformation from bebopper to modal jazz patriarch. During Sunday’s performance, Jamal exhibited many of the refined sensibilities that so profoundly struck Davis nearly 50 years ago. There is a tremendous openness to Jamal’s approach to the piano. In a tender rendition of the oft-trodden Jerome Kern standard “All the Things You Are,” Jamal underplayed the melody, allowing the musical personalities of his bandmates, drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist James Cammack, to help dictate the direction of the music.

Jamal’s generous approach to group interplay paid enormous dividends in the trio’s collective sound. Muhammad and Cammack were very responsive when Jamal’s improvisations shifted, often markedly, in dynamics and tempo. This constantly shifting interplay was rewarding and ambitious, but occasionally caused the music to falter in its balancing act between group rapport and individual inventiveness.

Jamal’s risk-taking was one of the more surprising elements of the concert. Most pianists of Jamal’s generation have settled into a refined comfort zone, crafting excellent, albeit predictable, music. Jamal’s music was less refined and more interesting than I had expected, and enthusiasm rather than polish dominated even the group’s most serene moments.

It was perhaps this enthusiasm that so effectively bridged the divide between Jamal and the audience. I would still prefer to hear Ahmad Jamal in a more intimate venue, but to his credit, he turned the scope of Mandel Hall into a grand asset. The audience (certainly one of the most diverse that Mandel Hall has ever hosted) was swept up by Jamal’s infectious enthusiasm and responded tenfold. Standing ovations greeted Jamal at the end of both sets, and enthusiastic cries rained down on the stage during the music’s most intense moments. When Jamal began to play “Poinciana,” his signature tune, much of the audience burst into revelry. An audience this appreciative is rare, even for a player as distinguished as Jamal.

In the concert’s best moments, the musicians and the audience were joined synergetically, driving the music to a joyful intensity that Jamal and his trio could not have reached alone. Part of this wonderful union of musician and audience is a function of geography: Jamal was, for many years, a South-Sider, cutting his most famous album at the Pershing Lounge on 63rd and Cottage Grove. Though nostalgia may have begun the cycle of adoration and appreciation that so audibly elevated the music, by the end of the night, the sheer power of jazz dominated the proceedings. It was a privilege to be part of such a responsive audience and a joy to hear the Ahmad Jamal Trio capture the crowd’s energy and transform it into elegant and exciting jazz.