#LongPlayLove: Celebrating 45 Years of The Ahmad Jamal Trio’s ‘The Awakening’ [FULL ALBUM STREAM]

IMAGE_soulhead_long_play_love_ahmad_jamal_trio_the_awakening_02_03_70By Justin Chadwick | @justin_chadwick

Happy 45th Anniversary to The Ahmad Jamal Trio’s The Awakening, originally recorded February 3, 1970.

One of the innumerable things I relish about living in New York City is that live music is always easy to come by. Easy if one has the hours and dollars to spare, that is. And while the performances that take place throughout this great city each evening represent the widest musical spectrum one is likely to find anywhere in the world, the city is particularly fecund soil for the jazz lovers among us. So many amazing jazz venues – large halls, small clubs and everything in-between – that host a perpetual stream of the genre’s aspiring and more established artists. I’ve enjoyed many wonderful performances in these venues during my dozen or so years living here, but there’s one show in particular that stands apart from all of the rest for me.

Back in the summer of 2002, I was asked to explore ideas for a company social event, to coincide with several of my out-of-town colleagues flying in for a week of meetings at our midtown Manhattan offices. Upon perusing the entertainment sections of the local papers, I discovered that the legendary jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal would be playing a week-long series of shows at The Iridium, located just a few blocks from our offices, conveniently enough. I ran the idea by my boss, secured his support, ordered the tickets, and escorted a few dozen coworkers to the show.

Prior to the performance, I had been casually familiar with Jamal’s music, most notably his early work from the 1950s through recordings such as his critically-acclaimed live performance at Chicago’s Pershing Hotel. After the Iridium performance, however, my relationship with Jamal’s music could no longer be classified as casual. I was hooked, man. While my coworkers regrettably seemed like they couldn’t care less about what was transpiring on stage (and were noticeably itching to move on to the bar down the block for a long nightcap), I was absolutely floored by the grace, sophistication and power of Jamal’s  playing that evening. I knew that I was bearing witness to a true master of his craft, a bona fide piano legend, and I was grateful.

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Shortly thereafter, I embarked upon a much deeper exploration of Jamal’s career and music. I learned that while Jamal’s creative and stylistic impact pervades the last century of jazz music, his accomplishments have often been unfairly slighted by many critics. In his Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (2007), Stanley Crouch eloquently defends Jamal’s legacy and originality, suggesting that “no single artist after (Charlie Parker) has been more important to the development of free form in jazz than Ahmad Jamal.” High praise, indeed. Crouch further contends that:

Even though he has received fulsome praise from musicians, Jamal has often been dismissed by jazz writers as no more than a cocktail pianist, a player so given to fluff that his work shouldn’t be considered seriously in any artistic sense. Claims for his influence, however, aren’t even vaguely exaggerated. In fact, it is now much easier to see how broad and deep his effect has been. There were elements in his music even thirty-five years ago that are still profound ideas about the way a small ensemble should – or could – function. And perhaps the reason that what he had to offer wasn’t perceived as clearly as it should have been is that too many might have been looking for literal emulation when what Jamal had to give jazz was as much conceptual as it was literal. Jamal, like (Thelonious) Monk, had ideas that could function free of the specific ways in which he applied them, meaning that once one understood the concept it wasn’t necessary to ape his manner of execution.

Upon spending quite a bit of time listening to various records within his extensive catalog, I ultimately discovered what I now consider to be the most convincing manifestation of his musical genius: 1970’s The Awakening. His first studio LP for the Impulse! label, The Awakening features the trio of Jamal, Jamil Nasser (bass) and Frank Grant (Drums) playing an enchanting song set comprised of Jamal’s original compositions (“The Awakening,” Patterns”) and solid interpretations of others’ work (Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave”).

Listened to as a unified whole, The Awakening’s songs reinforce not just Jamal’s superior musicianship and ensemble leadership, but his keen penchant for improvisation and variation in constructing songs. The trio’s playing is fluid, their notes unraveling in unexpected and riveting ways, pivoting and changing direction seamlessly mid-song, without ever sounding disjointed or discordant. It is the album’s dynamism that makes it so thoroughly enthralling, with no filler, and never a dull moment.

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No great surprise then that The Awakening has proven to be a crate-digging favorite among some of hip-hop’s savviest producers, as they seek out the perfect sonic flourishes for their own compositions. Most notably, Pete Rock sampled “I Love Music” for Nas“The World is Yours” from his landmark 1994 debut album Illmatic, while No I.D. lifted “Dolphin Dance” for the title track of Common’s 1994 sophomore LP Resurrection. More obscure samples worth mentioning are Shadez of Brooklyn’s 1996 single “Change” produced by Da Beatminerz and O.C.’s 1996 DJ Celory remix of “Word…Life,” which incorporate “The Awakening” and “Stolen Moments,” respectively. And the late great J Dilla paid dual homage to Jamal and “The Awakening” through his “Ahmad Impresses Me” instrumental found on his hard-to-find What Up Doe Sessions.

To my ears, there are few sweeter sounds in life than those produced by the giants of jazz piano, that rarefied group that claims Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Oscar Peterson and yes, Ahmad Jamal, as its founding members. And the elegant, goosebump-inducing sounds that Jamal offers on The Awakening are some of the very sweetest I’ve ever heard. An essential LP for any jazz record library, and a highly recommended introduction to Jamal’s prolific musical footprint for the uninitiated.

My Favorite Song: “Stolen Moments”

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