Ahmad Jamal ‘Marseille’ 2LP/CD/DIG (Jazz Village/Pias) 5/5

Now in his eighty-seventh year, pianist Ahmad Jamal is revelling in the company of his regular long-term quartet of bassist James Cammack, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena. The leader certainly seems to be reinvigorated with both new compositions and a new CD which has a distinctive French theme, the title track devoted to the city of Marseille, and this comes in three separate versions. The first, the opening piece, is an instrumental, that is the strongest and most conventional of the trio of interpretations, the second is accompanied by a spoken rap, while the third features the singing of Mina Agossi. A wonderful modal take on the standard, ‘Autumn leaves’, (the original being a French composition, ‘Les feuilles mortes’, co-written by Joseph Kozéma and Jacques Prévert) deploys that instinctive use of space that has become a Jamal trademark and a stylistic device that Miles Davis took a leaf out of in his late 1950s work. Another favourite is the quasi-improvisational created ambience of a Jamal original, ‘Baalbeck’, which is a groove-inflected ditty that is notable for the wonderful interplay between percussion and piano. However, it is the overall simplicity to Jamal’s pianist skills that is most impressive of all and this is amply demonstrated on another original number, ‘Pots en verre’, with scintillating percussive work from Badrena whose sound is omnipresent.

As a teenager, Ahmad Jamal was enthralled to meet the great Art Tatum, arguably the most naturally gifted of all jazz pianists, but was equally influenced by classical piano and in particular the music of Franz Liszt. Jamal has interiorised these multiple influences and made them his own and now belongs very much in a league of his own. The listener should consequently be grateful that Jamal is at present producing music of such a high quality as he verges on becoming a nonagenarian.

Tim Stenhouse