Last Night: Ahmad Jamal at Yoshi's in Oakland

Categories: Last Night

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Ahmad Jamal
Yoshi's Oakland, 8 p.m. show
June 5, 2008
Review by Ezra Gale

Ahmad Jamal makes you realize how boring most jazz really is. Not because he is, mind you- quite the opposite. Jamal's music pushes and pulls and bucks like a bronco when too much else in the jazz world is content to sit on a couch like a retiree, comfortable in a routine that sees a melody passed around from solo to solo, traded with the drums and brought home again, tune after tune.

Take the opening of the 77 year-old pianist's first set at Yoshi's in Oakland's Jack London Square Thursday night. A hushed piano melody gradually joined by bassist James Cammack, then just as we've gotten used to two voices we hear a third as percussionist Manolo Badrena delicately slaps his timbales and cowbells with his hands, and soon drummer James Johnson enters with a cymbal swirl, swinging like mad, and away we go. And so it went all night- the opening “Papillon” from Jamal's new album It's Magic gave way to a stride piano-infused piano and bass duet version of the classic “Easy Living”, which in turn yielded to “Swahililand,” another hard-swinging track off his new album that featured Jamal quoting Thelonius Monk's “Straight No Chaser” in a vamp that stretched out for Johnson to run away with.

Never contcnt to let anything settle for too long, Jamal makes each performance a study in dynamics and surprise, using every inch of his piano, from plinked high notes to thunderous lows, just as he uses every possible sound combination of his quartet- piano and bass, lightly brushed drums and percussion, bowed bass and hand-slapped timbales and so on. It's addition by subtraction, the art of lulling the listener into a world of sound and then opening a trap door underneath our feet when something else comes in- picture painting with black and white and then splattering bursts of red and gold and purple- and it's a trick quite a few bands could stand to learn. If you think about it, Jamal's dynamic inventiveness can be heard in everything from the Pixies to Radiohead, whether those groups know it or not.

Not that Jamal is all gimmick- his version of “Down By the Riverside,” played over the changes to “Like Someone In Love,” was delicately gorgeous; his version of “But Not For Me” had the audience rapt. Before the close, he introduced “Poinciana” as “the most plagiarized song I know” after noting that we're approaching the 50th anniversary of the song's status as a nationwide hit (yes Virginia, once upon a time lots of people listened to jazz). It was partly a reminder that Jamal's popularity in the late 50's once made him the object of scorn for many in the jazz world who decried his music as simplistic. Today, it's easy to see why he was popular, much less so to see why he was tagged as too simple. Mostly though, it was a reminder that Jamal and his music, his elaborate system for cuing his band (four fingers for swing, two for the 'B' section, a hand clasp for a riff, a pointed jab for a solo) and all, has been around for a while- long enough for him to be Miles Davis' favorite piano player, and quite possibly your grandmother's too.

Which isn't a surprise- music this good, this imaginative, doesn't spring up overnight.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias:
Likes jazz that sounds like prog rock, instead of Garage Band.

Random Detail:
In between the early and late sets, a piano tuner came out and painstakingly retuned all 88 keys of the piano before the next set- a byproduct of Jamal's sometimes crushingly hard attack on the ivories. A bit surprising for someone just named an Officer of Arts and Letters for his 'contribution to American Classical Music' by the French government (for real- June, 2007).

By The Way: Jamal finishes out this week at Yoshi's Oakland tonight, Saturday and Sunday at Yoshi's San Francisco.


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