Ahmad Jamal, the American jazz pianist, composer, and band leader, passed away on April 16. He was 92.
Known for a taut, minimalist style, Jamal broke new ground in modern jazz. Miles Davis once said, “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal…[He] knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.”
Born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, Jamal began playing the piano at the age of 3, was composing by 10, and started his professional career at 14. In a 2001 interview with the New York Times, he described his music education, which was influenced by both classical music and jazz:
We didn’t separate the two schools. We studied Bach and Ellington, Mozart and Art Tatum. When you start at 3, what you hear you play. I heard all these things.
Recorded in a Chicago nightclub in 1958, Poinciana remains one of Ahmad Jamal’s most iconic tracks. The original song, written by Nat Simon and Buddy Bernier in 1936, is based on La Canción del Árbol, a Cuban folk song, “inspired by the exotic royal Poinciana tree.” (Matt Fripp)
The dreamy improvisation develops over a hypnotic rhythmic groove, created by drummer Vernel Fournier. In a recent story for Jazzfuel, Matt Fripp details the “previously unheard sound” Fournier created “with a mallet in his right hand alternating between the ‘off’ snare drum and floor tom, coupled with a stick in his left playing off-beats on the bell.” The distinct sonority was the result of an accidental quirk of fate, as Fournier recounted in an interview:
I had just joined the band and we were playing the London House in Chicago. We were the house band, so I was playing intermission and I was re-adjusting the drums. And Ahmad started playing “Poinciana,” so I just sat down and figured something out, you know, and it evolved.
All it is, is New Orleans beats. You’ve seen the drummer in New Orleans with the bass drum and the cymbal on top, that’s all it is. I found that out twenty years later. That’s where it came from.
In Poinciana, we hear the power of Jamal’s spare, refined style. Every note has meaning. In the words of Keith Jarrett, “This is swinging more than anything I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less. What’s the secret here?”
Equally magical is Ahmad Jamal’s cool, laid-back improvisation on George Gershwin’s But Not for Me, written for the 1930 musical, Girl Crazy. As with the selection above, this was recorded in 1958 at the Lounge of Chicago’s Pershing Hotel:
- Ahmad Jamal: At the Pershing: But Not for Me Amazon
Featured Image: photograph by Gerald Herbert