By Gary Fukushima | Published November 2019
Next year, Ahmad Jamal will celebrate his 90th birthday, one of just a handful of performers on this earth who belong to the great society of artists that ushered in the age of modern jazz. Genius ages well, and even at this late stage of his career, Jamal presents us with something new: Ballades, an album of mostly solo piano pieces that display his absolute command of the keyboard.
Absent a percussive time-keeper, and only accompanied on three tracks by a bassist, Jamal freely explores classics like “I Should Care,” “Spring Is Here,” “Emily” and “What’s New.” He decorates those beautiful melodies with surprising textural and dynamic contrasts, always with impeccable harmonic sophistication; he sometimes interrupts himself with sparkling flourishes or an astonishing barrage of modulating block chords. Often, he moves out of the form with his trademark, bass-driven vamps, evoking the same hypnotic reverie that was a beloved feature of his erstwhile trio days.
In addition to the standard tunes, there are a number of original pieces that exhibit Jamal’s compositional acumen, including a reprise of the title track from his previous album, “Marseille.” It’s a gorgeous melody with a surprising bridge that easily could be included in the jazz canon.
Tucked into the middle of the album is a special treat, a solo rendition of Nat Simon’s “Poinciana,” immortalized by Jamal’s trio arrangement from the hallowed 1958 At The Pershing: But Not For Me. Here, it’s stripped down, dark with nostalgia, poignant and powerful.
Ballades places a gentle exclamation point on Jamal’s lengthy and brilliant career, a modern classic from a classic modernist.
Ballades: Marseille; Because I Love You; I Should Care; Poinciana; Land Of Dreams; What’s New; So Rare; Whisperings; Spring Is Here/Your Story; Emily. (41:47)
Personnel: Ahmad Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass (1, 7, 9).