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April 15, 2005

Ahmad Jamal: From artist to entertainer

Ahmad Jamal on piano

(with Iris Muhammad, drums, and James Cammack, bass)

Sunday, April 10

Mandel Hall

Ahmad Jamal recorded "Ahmad's Blues" for the first time in 1951 on the record Poinciana; he was just 21 years old. The tune's main melody enters over an easy four-four swing in quarter-note triplets—triplets that are broken into eighth-note triples—before falling seamlessly back into standard swing triplets. The effect, when you hear it (without trying to think analytically about what is going on) is one of being carried off into a gentle arrhythmic eddy for a few seconds, somewhere just beyond the flow of the established pulse, before once again being returned to the more regular time carried by the rhythm section.

Jamal executes the gesture with such extreme elegance, lightness, and regularity that it sounds like a sample, a musical figure extricated from some other recording and artfully inserted over this seemingly unrelated tempo. In another classic recording, off the record Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not For Me, the melody of the standard "Moonlight in Vermont" is gradually slowed down, carried out of phase with the rhythm section, like a wind-up music box slowing down as it unwinds.

These effects—both of which are achieved by a tight, controlled rhythm section holding a steady tempo while Jamal plays in an unrelated or highly derived tempo or meter—are indeed very similar to the sampling effects which have come to be an extremely familiar part of the modern compositional technique: a few seconds of noise, a melody from another recording, or just a cool "riff" are sampled out of their original context and "looped" over a steady hip-hop or electronic beat. The manipulation of musical space-time that results can be described as a particularly advanced form of rhythmic counterpoint; instead of two independent melodies you have two different rhythmic figures, often in different meters.

Much of Jamal's style on these early records sounds exceedingly modern, more so now than ever. The minimalism of his playing; the emphasis on short melodic figures, riffs, and chords used in place of melodies; and the space given to the drums and bass to just groove all prefigure the later achievements of funk and eventually hip-hop, the reduction of musical elements down to mere fragments put in play against one other. Ahmad's approach stands in stark contrast to that of his be-bop contemporaries, whose increasingly wild and lengthy lines elaborated melodies into dizzying complexity.

The influence Jamal's spare, reserved style on Miles Davis is well known; "Ahmad's Blues" itself was recorded by Miles Davis's Quintet on the album Workin'. The track features just the piano, bass and drums of the quintet, led by Miles's pianist Red Garland, whom Miles is supposed to have urged to play like Jamal.

So what has become of Jamal? Well, his performance at Mandel Hall on Sunday, April 10 was a welcome addition to the season there—and welcome, so it appeared, by the Hyde Park community at large. As Marna Seltzer, the director of the University of Chicago Presents, took the stage to greet the audience, she smiled and almost sheepishly announced that there would be more jazz at Mandel Hall from now on. As a glance at their season indicates, the University of Chicago concert series has become a sort of specialty program in Chamber Music and especially in what has come to be known as "Early Music" (pre-Baroque and Early Baroque period instrument performances); a program whose performances, as I have commented in this publication before, rarely transcends its somewhat utilitarian function. To be sure, the window they offer into the past is an impressively transparent and revealing one. But equally impressive was the turnout at Sunday's concert. It was completely sold-out, with an audience of the size and diversity not often seen in Mandel Hall.

This is the second jazz concert that Chicago Presents has put on. Last year the Art Ensemble of Chicago played a dizzyingly virtuosic, abstract, and beautiful set, with massive percussion structures and other odd instruments filling the stage. That an evening of such avant-garde music could bring such an audience to Mandel was surprising, and one wonders if there were concerns about the repeatability of such a phenomenon.

It makes sense to have shifted gears and gone for more of crowd-pleaser. Jamal has become somewhat less of an artist and more of an entertainer; and what subtlety still remains in his playing was buried in a room ill-suited for chamber jazz and the somewhat heavy-handed (although also quite funky) drumming of Iris Muhammad (an R&B great and, during the '70s, the house drummer for Prestige Records).

One can only hope that the back-to-back success of two wildly different types of jazz at Mandel Hall will convey the message to Seltzer and the other folks at Chicago Presents that they could do a world of good for jazz (as well as for their beloved early music) by considering their potential audience in Hyde Park a little more closely. It is quite near here, after all, that the Pershing once stood, and where Jamal first recorded many of his groundbreaking minimalist adventures. With the livelihood of one of the last great South Side jazz clubs, the Velvet Lounge, in question, it is all the more important that the University do its best to be conscious and supportive of the musical tradition it has ignored for so long.