Ahmad Jamal ‘Trio & Quintet Recordings with Ray Crawford’ 2CD (ÉL) 4/5

ahmad-jamalPrior to forming his classic late 1950s piano trio that continued throughout the 1960s, Ahmad Jamal started off in the early-mid 1950s with another trio that took a leaf out of the style and recordings of Nat King Cole. This was a drum-less trio that featured the considerable talents of Ray Crawford on guitar and Israel Crosby on bass (Eddie Calhoun filling in bass duties elsewhere), and it is these sides, now hard to find on vinyl, that are the focus of this excellent new re-issue from El/Cherry red that fills in an important gap in our knowledge base of the Ahmad Jamal discography.
Already at an early juncture in Jamal’s career, the distinctive piano rolls were in evidence, though the pianist was clearly soaking up other influences, including Art Tatum. That said, a fascinating interpretation of Jamal’s own ‘New Rhumba’ was an indication of the compositional genius of the musician and this 2CD set neatly bookends this with arguably the more well-known version by Miles Davis and the Gil Evans Orchestra. Marvellous renditions of the Great American songbook are a feature of the first CD and they follow in rapid succession from the Gershwin’s, ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, to Cole Porter evergreens such as ‘All of you’ and ‘I get a kick out of you’. Of note are the relatively concise times that rarely exceed four and a half minutes, though his second album, ‘The Ahmad Jamal Trio’ from 1956 does include an eight and a half-minute take on ‘Love for Sale’. This compares memorably with say Dexter Gordon’s Blue Note classic version from a few years later.

By the late 1950s, and which is the immediate focus of the second CD, Ahmad Jamal was already beginning to assemble some of the endearing compositions that he would re-interpret over the decades and pride of place here must go to ‘Poinciana’, that has become something of a signature tune even though the pianist did not actually write it. A traditional arrangement of ‘Billy Boy’ included here became a firm favourite of Miles Davis and was recorded by the latter on the seminal, ‘Milestones’ album. Rodgers and Hammerstein were among Jamal’s favourite composers and this is reflected in the inclusion of two pieces, ‘The surrey with the fringe on top’ and ‘Slaughter on tenth avenue’. Of great interest on the second CD is a further diversifying of the Jamal sound, with the violin of Joe Kennedy featuring largely and Israel Crosby being accompanied by anew drummer in Vernell Fournier and lesser known original’s such as ‘Ahmad’s waltz’ impress as do the standards, ‘Yesterdays’ and ‘Lover man’. This would comprise the rhythm section for the next decade and propel the Ahmad Jamal trio to ever greater heights. Often dismissed as a cocktail pianist, Jamal is rather a highly creative and disciplined musician who, in his own inimitable style, re-invented the development of the jazz piano and has given many of us endless hours of enjoyment. This forthcoming Saturday marks the eighty-sixth birthday of the genial musician. Many happy returns Ahmad!

As ever with the label, extremely well presented and informative inner sleeve notes with original album covers and black and white photos of the trio members, this time with original back cover sleeve notes from jazz writer Nat Hentoff on the one hand, and the reproducing of a terrific interview between Jamal and jazz piano specialist Len Lyons. The latter’s book on the history and evolution of the jazz piano is essential reading. Vivid re-mastering adds clarity to the original recordings.

Tim Stenhouse