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Ahmad Jamal swings through San Francisco

Did anyone attend Ahmad Jamal‘s December 10 concert at Herbst Theater? I was looking forward to that concert more than any other event in the SFJAZZ festival, but an unexpected family crisis prevented me from attending. I have searched in vain for a review or blogpost about this highly anticipated event – is it possible that Mr. Jamal came and went through San Francisco and nobody from the Fourth Estate thought to make the concert a matter of public record? The event was sold out, so I’d love to hear from folks who were there!

Ahmad Jamal is one of those artists about whom I can remember the exact moment I discovered their music. I was flipping through my mother’s record collection, carefully dodging anything by Andy Williams or Doris Day, and came across an attractive album titled Ahmad Jamal with Strings: Rhapsody. The cover photo showed a sharply dressed man who seemed to resemble Steve McQueen whispering in the ear of an Audrey Hepburn lookalike in full Holly Golightly mode. I figured it was a film soundtrack or romantic mood music. The cover appealed to me, but knowing nothing about Ahmad Jamal I skipped it. I finally got around to playing it several weeks later (don’t ask why At the Hop and a series of Kiss records enjoyed more immediate attention) and from the first sounds of the first track, “I Hear a Rhapsody,” I was completely drawn in. Jamal’s piano playing had an introspective quality that suggested loneliness or isolation, but without despair or pathos. The advertised string section periodically swooped in and threatened to ruin the proceedings with their grand romantic gestures, but the pianist’s intimate groove prevailed and his quiet act of creation continued unperturbed. It was an amazing discovery for me. The rest of the record showed off other facets of Jamal’s musical personality, from uptempo swinging numbers to his McCoy Tyner-ish turn on the Tyner tune “Effendi.” It is a diverse program and Jamal manages to fit the mood of each tune without sacrificing his remarkably personal approach.

It has been 25-years since that first hearing and I can say that Rhapsody probably isn’t Jamal’s best record (I don’t think it ever made it to CD), but it communicates the singular appeal and taste of this great pianist from Pittsburgh. He doesn’t play like Hines, Tatum, or Peterson; his style finds a better point of reference in the music of Miles Davis. On numerous occasions Davis cited Jamal as an important musical influence, an endorsement that did much for Jamal’s enduring fame… well that and a pretty little thing he recorded in the lounge of Chicago‚Äôs Pershing Hotel in 1958 called “Poinciana.”

Jamal has, at last, received the Mosaic-treatment: Mosaic Records has devoted one of their superb boxed sets (9 CDs worth!) to Jamal’s Complete Trio Sessions for Argo Records 1956-1962. Though Rhapsody (1967) falls outside of its scope, the set is a goldmine for any Jamal fan. If any Santas out there happen to be reading, I would like to take this opportunity to say that I am a HUGE Ahmad Jamal fan, the set is on my Christmas list, and it can be found here. I’m just saying.