Ahmad Jamal: Historical Album of the Year


Thanks to the Emerald City Nights releases, Jamal’s legacy is stronger than ever.

(Photo: Don Bronstein)

When Ahmad Jamal was first approached about releasing some of the recordings made during his many appearances at the Seattle club The Penthouse in the 1960s, he was initially skeptical about having to go back and consider such old recordings.

“Fifty-nine years?” he remembered thinking. “Come on.” But after further consideration, he changed his mind. “You know, there’s no such thing as old music,” he said, in an interview with DownBeat last November. “It’s either good or bad. So I hope this is a good thing for everyone concerned.”

He needn’t have worried. In addition to earning dozens of rave reviews, Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse 1963–64 was voted the top Historical Jazz Album in the 71st Annual DownBeat Critics Poll. Sadly, Jamal was not around to see this triumph, as he passed away on April 16 at his home in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts.

“It’s very fitting,” said Zev Feldman, who produced the album for his Jazz Detective label. “That whole period [of Jamal’s career] was such magic. I believed in these tapes from the moment we discovered them. And to have him, who was notorious for not wanting to revisit his past, take a listen and talk about [this music] — I think that says something about where he was in his life.”

Jamal made numerous stops at the Seattle jazz landmark over the years, and was friendly with the club’s owner, Charlie Puzzo. There would always be a Steinway grand piano set up for him — Jamal was a lifelong Steinway artist — and a packed house waiting. But until Feldman approached him, he had no idea that there were reels and reels of his performances on tape out in Seattle. (Last year’s top Historical album, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle was also recorded at the Penthouse.)

Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse 1963–64 was the first of three releases compiled from those recordings. A second volume, covering the years 1965–’66, was released in December 2022; a third and final volume, covering 1966–’68, will be released in the late fall. The Penthouse closed in 1968.

Across those years, Jamal worked with several different lineups. Apart from four tracks recorded in June 1963, where Richard Evans played bass, Jamil Nasser was always Jamal’s bassist. But there were three different drummers over the years: Chuck Lampkin (who played with both Evans and Nasser), Vernel Fournier and Frank Gant.

“Jamil Nasser was one of the most celebrated bassists of all time,” Jamal said last November. “He brought Phineas Newborn to New York. Worked with B.B. King. I think he did three hundred and some one-nighters in one year with B.B. King. One of the masters from Memphis.” Evans, in addition to playing bass, wrote the first volume’s second tune, “Minor Adjustment.”

“He was one of my favorite writers,” Jamal said. “And he was Hiromi’s teacher when she was at Berklee.”

But as time passed, so did Jamal’s bandmates. “Frank Gant, he died recently,” he noted. “Chuck Lampkin has been gone awhile. And Vernel Fournier, one of the great, great masters from New Orleans. I’m the only one left.”

And now, Jamal is gone, too.

Still, thanks to the Emerald City Nights releases, Jamal’s legacy is stronger than ever. Although there have always been those who recognized the greatness and singularity of his approach both to the piano and to improvisation — Stanley Crouch opined that Jamal was second only to Charlie Parker “in the development of fresh form in jazz” — a number of prominent jazz critics were dismissive of his music, among them Ira Gitler, who dismissed Jamal’s playing as “cocktail music.”

Feldman, who interviewed Gitler for the 2014 release Swingin’ On The Korner: Live At The Keystone Korner by the Red Garland Trio, feels that the “cocktail” quip wasn’t intended to be as dismissive as it sounds. “I think maybe he was talking about music being accessible, about playing also for the people,” he said. “Like Erroll Garner wasn’t [a cocktail pianist], either. But he always played for people, was there with the melody. There was something accessible about it. It was the opposite of self-indulgence.”

Jamal likewise made a point of carefully framing the melody with his arrangements, and was more inclined to leave space in his phrases than fill every bar with a flurry of notes. Despite the changes in personnel across the years, his trio approach remained strikingly consistent. There was a strong sense of form to his arrangements, with melodic lines built in to bolster the improvisation, the way a big band chart might. Above all, there was the groove, a deep sense of rhythm drive so vital that his work spoke to hip-hop musicians who weren’t even born when the original recordings were made.

“That heavy groove,” agreed Feldman. He cites the version of “Tangerine” on this first volume as being something that he keeps going back to, swept in by its rhythmic vitality. “There are tracks that just take you over, like you can’t help it.”

The series’ final volume, drawn from four different shows and featuring Nasser and Gant, promises more of the same, including a virtuosically adventurous take on “Autumn Leaves” and a spectacularly funky treatment of Garner’s classic “Misty.”

“That was just such a golden period. There was so much magic,” Feldman said. “He was still expanding as an artist, discovering, and pushing the envelope, whether it was his sense of time or the way he used space in the music.

“I’m just really happy that we’re all talking about him,” he added. “We were lucky that he was here to experience it, to feel the love of all the critical acclaim that came on. I’m just grateful for the experience.” DB

  • 23_Carla_Bley_by_Mark_Sheldon.jpg

    ​Bley told DownBeat in 1984: “I’m just a composer, and I use jazz musicians because they’re smarter, and they can save your ass in a bad situation. … I need all the help I can get.”

  • 23_Samara_Joy_Linger_Awhile_copy.jpg
  • image002.jpg

    “Blue Note music has been such an integral part of my musical and life experience for so long,” says Redman. “It’s surreal to be a part of this lineage.”

  • TOny_Bennett_Mohegan_Sun_2013_DSC2627_copy_3.jpg

    Bennett had a wealth of material to draw upon, and he had a direct association with much of it.

  • 2024_grammys_winners_nominations_nominees_full_list_66-grammy-awards-Nominees-Full-List_1644x925_no_text.jpg

    The 66th GRAMMY Awards will air live (8–11:30 p.m. ET) on Feb. 4 on CBS Television and stream on Paramount+.

On Sale Now
December 2023
Pharoah Sanders
Look Inside
Print | Digital | iPad