Jazz has travelled a long distance and so has Jamal. Having recently celebrated his 84th birthday in Paris, Ahmad Jamal has been consistently performing for a staggering period of time – eight decades to be precise. That speaks for longevity. Jazz itself has evolved so much and continues to evolve, defying definition, soaking in new sounds and influences, simply endearing itself to new audiences all over the planet, everyday.
It’s thanks to practitioners like Jamal, who maintain their jazz roots and perform in a contemporary environment appealing to a wider audience.
Jamal’s schedule is busy and this was his first concert in India, at the Chowdaiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore. Jamal wasted no time and straight away got into the groove with 'Baalbeck'. This was a quartet comprising of Ahmad Jamal on piano, Herlin Riley on drums, James Cammack on double bass and Manuel Badrena on percussion.
Very early on in his career Jamal has been hailed as ‘steering jazz in a new direction’ and according to a critic, second in importance in the development of jazz after Charlie Parker, and influencing Miles Davis.
On stage, with no score or written set list, Jamal leads maintaining eye contact and hand signals which only his sidemen are privy to and follow, often standing up to admire their interplay and exchange.
Riley’s snare roll with a solid backbeat, hi hat flourishes backed by Cammack’s neat bass lines - a fulcrum for Jamal’s experienced fingers on a grand Steinway - combination of block chords, tight syncopation, building textures and moods.
Manuelo Bardena, who has performed with Weather Report provided percussive support from tiny bell-like embellishments to cracking snare and the odd bird calls, whistles and voices. In fact Jamal is a drummer’s dream. Employing the use of Ostinato (very similar to the Lehera of Hindustani Classical) Jamal explores with a dynamic canvas providing his sidemen ample space to demonstrate their brilliance and often switching tempo suddenly from a slow ballad to a fast paced rhythm. At times it drops to a hushed whisper as Jamal caresses with soft solos and rich harmonies. From the beautifully arranged Poinciana to the funky One to the 6/8 folk flavoured polyrhythmic Avo, (where he teased with a quick refrain of ‘My Favourite Things’ and elsewhere with Big Ben) Jamal amply displayed his jazz roots and where he’s been steering it to.
The Hall has reverberated with great performances by scores of legendary performers like Pandit Jasraj, Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Dr Balamuralikrishna to name a few but jazz performers like these are rare. The last legendary performer I can recall is possibly Dizzy Gillespie, who played here in the early 80s.
Ahmad Jamal has been consistently playing from the early 80s. I met quite a few jazz enthusiasts who had come down from Chennai and Mumbai and who, like me, were introduced to jazz by listening to the late Willis Conover’s Jazz Hour on Voice of America, and discovering the music of jazz artists like Ahmad Jamal. Thanks to the promoters we were fortunate to witness the performance of a legend. Can we expect Herbie Hancock or George Benson sometime?
-- M R Jagadeesh, founder-member of world fusion ensemble MoonArra