By Michelle Mercer | Published September 2017
“Play like Ahmad,” Miles Davis would tell his pianist Red Garland in the 1950s. This was just one of Ahmad Jamal’s well-documented influences on Davis’ music, which is to say on the development of jazz. There was also Jamal’s affinity for show tunes, his classical drama and his concept of space, pauses rich with the resonance of the last chord and the possibility of the next one.
For all Jamal’s technique, he had the courage to play pretty against dominant trends in bebop’s era of firebrand artistes, and unlike Davis, he remained more or less devoted to one style through jazz’s restless 20th- and 21st-century innovations.
With Marseille, it’s as if the pianist took Davis’ advice himself: Ahmad plays like Ahmad here, giving this solid session a mood of retrospection. Marseille is in the same vein as Jamal’s recordings of the past 30 years, featuring sidemen who’ve played with him since the 1980s and ’90s.
On six original tunes and two covers, we hear Afro-Cuban beats with drumming from Herlin Riley and percussion from Manolo Badrena; James Cammack’s bass is foregrounded here, as Jamal’s bassists have been for at least 65 years. We hear vamps, an enthusiastic embrace of repetition. We hear warm harmonies, miraculously soft swing and indelibly long, fluid lines, maybe a bit shorter than they used to be. But each 13-note figure on the title track, for example, can still tell a complete story as it stretches with tension and finds resolution.
Jamal always has been such a lyrical player that his notes feel shaped directly from a song’s words. But Marseille features Jamal’s first original lyrics, with rapper Abd Al Malik and singer Mina Agossi interpreting Jamal’s spare, sentimental lines in French and English: “Marseille ... your sea and all its splendor and regret.”
Despite its stated theme, Marseille is less a tribute to the city than a celebration of the Jamal-style that the French adore, a victory lap toward the end of a fine career. Now in his mid-80s, Jamal might be self-conscious about his legacy, his mind on musical autobiography—and with the best younger pianists having gone in Herbie Hancock’s direction, who better than Ahmad Jamal to play Ahmad Jamal?
It’s to his credit that Jamal still has the confidence for such nonchalant virtuosity, even when he’s performing an appreciation of his own life’s singular work.
Marseille: Marseille (Instrumental); Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child; Pots En Verre; Marseille (Feat. Abd Al Malik); Autumn Leaves; I Came To See You/You Were Not There; Baalbeck; Marseille (Feat. Mina Agossi). (59:33)
Personnel: Ahmad Jamal, piano; Manolo Badrena, percussion; James Cammack, bass; Herlin Riley, drums; Abd Al Malik, spoken word (4); Mina Agossi, vocals (8).