Sunday, November 20, 2005

I Like Ahmad Jamal

These days, I can’t get enough Ahmad Jamal. I’ve got him
playing while I write, while I read, while I work, while I walk
to the grocery store, while I clean my bathroom, and while
I fiddle around on the internet. When I’m tired and it’s time
for me to sleep, I put Columbia’s new reissue of his Epic &
Okeh recordings
on repeat play so that it’s going as I drift
off. I now have strange dreams of demented, knife-wielding
men in frog masks chasing me down the bulk foods aisle of my
local organic food hippie coop
while “Poiciania” tinkles gently
in the background. It’s a weird juxtaposition.

Ahmad Jamal himself would hate it, I think. Everything he
plays makes sense, all his juxtapositions sound natural and
flowing. His music is so precise and so intently structured
that it often sounds like something other than jazz. On one
of his albums
, he plays a version of “Autumn Leaves” that to
me seems to predict some of the structures and habits of
electronic club music. The beat that bassist Israel Crosby
and drummer Vernell Fourier lay out shifts compulsively,
but remains so tight a gnat couldn’t slip through it. It isn’t
just “support”, it’s the heartbeat and breath of the song.
Over this, Jamal lays down his thoughts in suspenseful
flurries of notes that alternate with quick, singing choruses.
There is a premeditation here that is rare in jazz, and also
a sense of thrill and spectacle that many of the snob gate-
keepers of the form would prefer to deride as show-bizzy
affectations. “Premeditation”, to these people, was always
synonymous with “contrivance”, just as aiming to please
was construed as pandering to the mob.

Jamal’s uncomplicated talent for bringing pleasure to
his listeners (which shouldn't be read as suggesting that
he performed uncomplicated music) was largely what
kept him a marginal figure in critical-acclaim terms. He
was, for awhile, derided as a “cocktail” pianist, a “lite jazz”
maven, and–in an insult that tells more about the critics
than their subject–as a “mere entertainer”. Time has been
kind to Jamal, though, and cruel to his detractors. His music
still feels fresh and alive, while their writing comes off as the
ponderous intellectualizing of those who long to impose their
own inner dramas on other people’s art. Jamal has acquitted
the mere entertainer marvelously: in his work you have a
man who loves what he does and who makes it easy for
you to love it too.