No musician has had a more profound effect on the orchestral approach to small group jazz configurations than the celebrated pianist-composer Ahmad Jamal. While a tremendously wide listening audience continues to be drawn to his irresistibly appealing sound, it is fellow musicians that seem to hold Mr. Jamal in highest regard. Perhaps his status as a major exponent of jazz repertoire and the American songbook relates to his personal piano style, complimented rather than overshadowed by his exceptional technical command of the instrument.
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Mr. Jamal was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1930. Like other child prodigies he was drawn to music very early, playing the piano at age three and studying formally by age seven. While still in high school, he completed the equivalent of college master classes under the tutelage of noted music educators, singer Mary Cardwell Dawson and pianist James Miller. His professional career began upon his high school graduation at age seventeen. He formed his first piano trio in 1951, which has been the continuing and predominant medium for his artistry.
In 1958, while working as the house band at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier, Mr. Jamal recorded the trademark "Poinciana," a song that remained on the Ten Best-selling charts (including R&B!) for an incredible 108 weeks! It is the song that a generation of listeners still identifies with Ahmad Jamal.
Mr. Jamal has mastered the delicate integration of a very few instruments into the sweeping feel of an orchestra. He has created by ingenious arrangements and intuitive improvisation interdependent, democratic roles for the bassist and the drummer without stifling freedom of expression for these players. Most notable over the years has been his incorporation of space into his phrasing and also volume modulation. This ability to swing without ostentatious displays of technique is what has made him such a profound influence on so very many players, including Miles Davis. It is interesting that some of the most incendiary soloists list Ahmad Jamal high on their lists of influences. This is not to say that his technical skills are anything less than dazzling. However, the hallmarks of Mr. Jamalís style are colorful left hand harmonic and melodic progressions; brilliant parallel and contrapuntal lines in and out of chordal substitutions; and pedal point ostinato interludes, the primary functions of which are to create tension, harmonic interest, and often intense excitement.
There will be many who will be surprised by this artist in 2002. Ahmad Jamal has continued to evolve melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically whether playing standards or original compositions. He is truly a musical legend.
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