Ahmad Jamal: Surprise at the Penthouse

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Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse was recorded at a club that helped put Ahmad Jamal on the map.

(Photo: Jean-Marc Lubrano)

Truth be told, the music on Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse was just as much of a surprise to Ahmad Jamal as to anyone else.

Although the pianist had performed frequently at the Seattle jazz landmark and was fond of the club’s late owner, Charlie Puzzo, he had no idea that recordings of his early-’60s performances at the Penthouse existed — much less that there were six hours’ worth. “I knew nothing about them except the fact that Puzzo had one of my favorite clubs,” he said, over the phone from his home in the Berkshires. “I worked there for many, many years. And we did broadcasts.

“But I had no idea someone was going to unearth 59-year-old recordings,” he laughed.

Recorded between 1963 and 1966, the material on the first two volumes (a third, covering 1966–’68, is forthcoming) captures Jamal in his creative and commercial prime. “I’ve known about these recordings of Ahmad Jamal probably for about 10 or 11 years now,” explained producer Zev Feldman, whose Jazz Detective imprint released the Emerald City Nights albums. He had gotten to know Puzzo and his son, Charlie Jr., and through them was introduced to the Penthouse club archives.

Starting with 2015’s Groovin’ Hard: Live At The Penthouse by the Three Sounds featuring Gene Harris, the partnership between Feldman and the Puzzo family has yielded a number of albums, most notably John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle.

But it was the stack of Ahmad Jamal tapes that most excited Feldman now. “I’ve kind of felt that these were the Holy Grail,” he said. “I mean, we’re very lucky to have this. This happens during his Argo phase, all those years recording with the Chess family, and there’s something really magical about them. These are recordings that I personally kept listening to, over and over again.

“But I also had known, through reputation, that Mr. Jamal is very selective,” he added. “For some artists, revisiting the past isn’t something that they like to do. They like to be focused on moving forward.” By chance, Feldman wound up speaking with Andrew Stayman, one of Jamal’s assistants, about an unrelated matter, and happened to bring up the Penthouse tapes’ existence. Would Jamal be interested in listening to these tapes, with an eye to a possible album or albums?

“I really didn’t know what was going to happen,” Feldman said. But the tapes went out, and Stayman eventually called back to say that Jamal loved them.

“I can’t tell you how happy that made me,” Feldman said.

“I was reluctant, to tell you the truth, to go along with this project,” Jamal admitted. But Feldman, Stayman and Maurice Montoya, Jamal’s agent, were all in favor. “So I gave in. I relented, and started this work,” he paused. “A lot of work, though. Listening, listening and listening and deciding what to use, and what not to use. A lot of work.”

Then again, it was a collection of material recorded before an audience at a night club that put Ahmad Jamal on the map for many jazz fans. In the mid-’50s, Jamal was signed with Argo, an offshoot of Chicago’s Chess Records, and for his third album wanted to try something different than the usual studio session. “I went to Leonard Chess, and told Leonard I wanted to do a remote recording,” he said. (He said he prefers the term “remote recording” because, as he points out, “All recordings are live. Remote means removed from the studio.”)

The result was At The Pershing: But Not For Me, recorded at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago. Released on Jan. 16, 1958, it was a massive hit, spending 108 weeks on the Billboard album charts and selling more than a million copies. It even delivered a hit single with the grooving, tuneful “Poinciana,” a track Jamal had to insist got given to DJs. “They said, you’ll never get a seven-minute, 35-second record played,” he laughed. “We got all the play we wanted, and then some. We’re still getting airplay.”

Rather than use the word jazz, Jamal prefers to refer to the music as American classical music. A child prodigy whose professional career began at age 14, Jamal is well-versed in European classical music, and notes the difference between the two approaches. With European classical music, the performer is expected to interpret the music, faithfully following the score in the hopes of reflecting the composer’s intention. With American classical music, the goal is to reinterpret the music, to find something the original composer never imagined.

“We interpreted the works beyond the concepts of the writers,” he said. “The thing is, we pick and choose [material].” He mentions as an example John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” the recording that first brought broad attention to the saxophonist’s solo career. “‘My Favorite Things’ is how you know John Coltrane,” he said. “But why did John Coltrane pick that? Because he found something in there that no one else did.”

Jamal himself has been particularly adept at finding something that no one else did. It’s unlikely that many listening to Bing Crosby’s stagey, string-drenched rendition of “Poinciana” (1943) would have heard the makings of a groove tune, yet Jamal did. But he didn’t just match a melody to a beat, as his reinterpretation turns a song that was mostly refrain into a mini-suite, driven by eighth-note afterbeats and Israel Crosby’s insistently tuneful bass.

“My arrangement of ‘Poinciana’ is a classic that still is imitated and emulated every day,” he said, with justifiable pride. Arranging has always been one of Jamal’s strong suits. In particular, he’s especially adept at two devices that figure heavily in European classical music: constructing a narrative structure out of variation on a theme, and using shifting dynamics to pull the most from a melody.

“I’ve been writing since I was 10 years old, writing arrangements,” he said. That didn’t become a professional strength until he was 20, and moved from sideman to bandleader after violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. left the Four Strings, and Jamal became the head of the Three Strings. “I inherited leadership,” he said. “It was something I didn’t want, but it happened. And I’ve been writing ever since.”

The Three Strings’ recorded output was small — eight tracks cut between 1951 and ’52 — but influential, mostly thanks to “Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” which in Jamal’s hands was transformed from a plodding cowboy song in Oklahoma! to a frisky, bop-inflected romp. Thanks to Jamal, the tune became a jazz standard, performed by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson and a host of others.

The two volumes of Emerald City Nights underscore the range and variety of Jamal’s abilities as an arranger and pianist. “Johnny One Note,” which opens the first volume, is typical, opening with a gruffly propulsive blues riff that repeatedly dissolves into an effervescent, major-key melody. The heart of the performance is a long solo over that bass line, in which Jamal shows off both his chops and his imagination, but the impact of that solo is amplified by the arrangement, which uses tempo shifts, block chords and a wonderfully melodic drum solo by Chuck Lampkin to transform the tune into a small-scale suite.

Then there’s “Minor Adjustments,” which opens with piano and bass playing counterpoint that could have come from a Bach three-part invention before veering off into a stomping blues. “That was by [bassist] Richard Evans, a very talented bassist and composer,” Jamal said, adding that it was through Evans — who was at that point teaching at Berklee — that he was introduced to the pianist Hiromi, an artist his wife, Laura Hess-Hay, now manages.

“Tangerine,” also from the first volume, finds Jamal using dynamic contrasts with such finesse that his piano sounds like a virtual big band. “That was Joe Kennedy’s arrangement, adapted from his arrangement of ‘Tangerine,’” he said, referring to a 1959 album with orchestra called, appropriately, At the Penthouse (although in this case, the penthouse in question was Nola’s Penthouse Studio in New York). Jamal not only manages to convey both the piano and string parts, but adjusts his attack to make it easy to hear the difference between solo and ensemble passages.

When asked about the technical challenges that went into playing like that, he responded, “Oh, nothing is easy. I would like it to be, but …” He laughed. “People talk to me about what I have done. I think in terms of what I haven’t done.”

Perhaps the most audacious arrangement on the Emerald City Lights albums is “Like Someone In Love,” from the second volume. It opens with a solo piano statement of the tune, played rubato and emphasizing the lushness of composer Jimmy Van Heusen’s harmony. But when the bass and drums finally enter, it’s not to shore up the changes but to set up a pedal-point vamp, over which Jamal free-associates snippets from Ferde Grofé’s “On The Trail” and the title song from The Sound Of Music — until suddenly there’s a four-chord transition and we’re back in “Like Someone In Love.”

“I listened to some of this stuff, and I said, ‘Is that me?’” Jamal laughed. “I was surprised at some of the things I discovered listening [to these tapes].”

Listeners will make discoveries, too. For instance, “My First Love Song,” a piece that Leslie Bricusse wrote with lyricist Anthony Newley for the now mostly forgotten musical The Roar Of The Greasepaint, The Smell Of The Crowd. “I didn’t remember that I’d done that,” Jamal admitted. “But I had done the whole score, [because] the record company wanted us to cover that particular Broadway show that Leslie Bricusse and Tony Newley produced. And, actually, they were very talented people.”

“My First Love Song” is a beautiful ballad, but what makes the version on the second Emerald City Nights album so compelling is the trio’s masterful control of dynamics, which ebb and swell like an incoming tide. There are quiet moments in which all three musicians seem to be playing at a whisper, and other bits where they’re swinging hard and loud. Jamal takes full advantage of his instrument’s wide dynamic range.

The liner notes mention that there was always a grand piano onstage when Jamal played the Penthouse. “I was the third artist in our particular American classical genre to join the Steinway roster,” he explained. “When I went over there, they only had two other artists in the genre that we are working in American classical music. They had Hazel Scott, and John Lewis [of the Modern Jazz Quartet]. I’ve been with them since 1960.”

These days, Jamal does not get as much use out of being a Steinway artist.

“I have two Steinway D’s in my studio upstairs,” he said. “I want to practice every day, but I can’t. I’m retired now, so I have this thing, that thing, that thing, this thing to do. I’m very busy.” DB



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