Q&A with Ahmad Jamal: Continuum of Influence

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Ahmad Jamal will release a new album, Marseille, on July 7.

(Photo: J-M. Lubrano)

On the subject of drummers, you were one of the first jazz musicians to incorporate Afro-Latin percussion in your music in the early ’50s.

There are only two people that I know of who employed percussionists in the manner we did at that time: Dizzy Gillespie—with Chano Pozo—and me. I had Badr Uddin in Chicago. And if I didn’t have congas, I had Ray Crawford, who lived in my mother’s house in Pittsburgh. He was a saxophonist who learned to play guitar while recovering from a lung disease. He got that percussive sound on the instrument that you heard on my early recordings like “Billy Boy” and some other things.

Everybody emulated him: Oscar Peterson used to come to see me with Herb Ellis … they emulated what Ray Crawford was doing. I’ve always utilized percussionists.

Which brings us to the Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena, who, with his elaborate set of hand drums, cymbals, whistles, gongs and chimes, is a one-man United Nations of rhythm.

He was in and out of my group since 1986. And he worked with Joe Zawinul and Weather Report. And he was the staff percussionist for A&M in California with Herb Alpert. Manolo’s very gifted and very musical. He plays piano and guitar every day. To get that chemistry between drummers and percussionists to work, it takes a certain amount of skill to bring that to fruition.

It’s a wonderful thing to work with these gentlemen of high character. And the result is what you hear.

Let’s talk about the new album, Marseille.

I’ve written many songs about cities and countries, including “Perugia,” “Tucson” with [guitarist] Calvin Keys and “I Remember Italy.” But I haven’t dedicated many CDs to cities, except to my hometown, Pittsburgh. And about two years ago, in my studio, I came up with some tonalities that I liked. And I called [the song] “Marseille.” And after that, another composition came to me … and the lyrics came out almost instantaneously. … That’s “Marseille,” and there you have it.

How did Marseille inspire you?

I’ve spent time in Marseille. It’s a very impressive city. It’s the gateway to Europe. It’s the oldest city in France. And it reminds me of San Francisco. I can walk the streets of Marseille—that’s in the lyrics [of the title track].

Talk about your lyrical inspirations and your work with voices.

There’s a young lady, Aziza Miller. She’s an amazing lyricist. She used to conduct for Natalie Cole. I met her through Richard Evans. She inspires me. She wrote the lyrics to “Picture Perfect,” and “Whispering,” which was O.C. Smith’s last recording. And she sang on and wrote lyrics to “My Latin.” I’ve done several projects for the human voice [including the 1967 LP] Cry Young, with “Nature Boy,” [scored] by the wonderful composer Hale Smith, with the Howard Roberts Chorale. The human voice is my favorite instrument.

On Marseille, you feature two French vocal artists on two versions of the title track, starting with the popular French-Congolese rapper Abd Al-Malik, who delivers your lyrics as a spoken-word tribute to the city. And Mina Agossi, who sings the lyrics in French and English.

Abd Al-Malik is one of the most recognized rappers in France. He’s performed for 20,000 people and with the French Symphony at Salle Pleyel—one of the most prestigious halls in France. My lyric-manuscript first went to Mina Agossi, a vocalist we used to manage for a minute. We had her at the Blue Note [in New York]. She’s one of the great divas. She’s French, but her family comes from Benin; very interesting lady.

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November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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