Happy 45th Anniversary to The Ahmad Jamal Trios 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 genres aspiring and more established artists. Ive enjoyed many wonderful performances in these venues during my dozen or so years living here, but theres 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 Jamals music, most notably his early work from the 1950s through recordings such as his critically-acclaimed live performance at Chicagos Pershing Hotel. After the Iridium performance, however, my relationship with Jamals music could no longer be classified as casual. I was hooked, man. While my coworkers regrettably seemed like they couldnt 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 Jamals 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.
Shortly thereafter, I embarked upon a much deeper exploration of Jamals career and music. I learned that while Jamals 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 Jamals 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 shouldnt be considered seriously in any artistic sense. Claims for his influence, however, arent 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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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: 1970s 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 Jamals original compositions (The Awakening, Patterns) and solid interpretations of others work (Herbie Hancocks Dolphin Dance, Oliver Nelsons Stolen Moments, Antônio Carlos Jobims Wave).
Listened to as a unified whole, The Awakenings songs reinforce not just Jamals superior musicianship and ensemble leadership, but his keen penchant for improvisation and variation in constructing songs. The trios 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 albums dynamism that makes it so thoroughly enthralling, with no filler, and never a dull moment.
No great surprise then that The Awakening has proven to be a crate-digging favorite among some of hip-hops 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 Commons 1994 sophomore LP Resurrection. More obscure samples worth mentioning are Shadez of Brooklyns 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 Ive ever heard. An essential LP for any jazz record library, and a highly recommended introduction to Jamals prolific musical footprint for the uninitiated.
My Favorite Song: Stolen Moments
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