CONCERT REVIEW Jamal: Master of Musical Space

Legendary Pianist Makes Appearance at Regattabar

Ahmad Jamal

Regattabar, Cambridge, MA

Sepember 17, 2009

It’s hard to put a finger on Ahmad Jamal’s music. It speaks slowly, suggestively, and delicately. He’s seen his fair share of music, and his style fits into the spectrum between breezy carelessness and angsty desperation. Perhaps its greatest quality is its use of space. Few other artists out there can tap out of melody with as much natural, composed structure as Jamal can without it sounding inevitable and rigid. Jamal’s playing is unfettered but rational, well-balanced, and smooth. Above all, it feels good.

I got to see him at the Regattabar Jazz Club on a Thursday night, performing with regular trio-mates James Cammack on bass and Idris Muhammad on drums, with semi-regular guest percussionist Manolo Badrena (of Weather Report fame).

Jamal was in top form, commanding the group decisively, often vocally. Unlike a lot of groups out on the scene today, Jamal demands a little order in the playing. The members don’t play as equals; Ahmad Jamal controls the emotional core of the music most of the time.

That’s not to say the rest of the group is just there for his sake. Rather, each musician stays a little closer to their “zone” — bass sticks to its walking, percussion to its time-keeping — and tries to work within that frame. The result has a little more moderation, and a little less cacophony. Still, the communication is there. It was particularly palpable between Badrena and Jamal, who afforded themselves the most rhythmic flexibility and the most playfulness: calling and responding within the space of an articulation.

The music is a hybrid of Caribbean and Middle Eastern, a fusion of Monkian playfulness and Zawinul-style groove. For some people in the audience, it’s music to move to. For others, it’s music for slowing down. It doesn’t project itself outward — it draws you inward. It feels good, reminds you of what art is, and lends perspective.

After seventy-some years of playing, that, above all else, is what Ahmad Jamal has.