jazz and improvised music

Reviews - Ahmad Jamal Quartet
John Clare

Sunday 9 May 2010

Sydney Opera House Concert Hall,
May 3

Guitarist Carl Dewhurst, bassist Cameron Undy and drummer Evan Mannell – calling themselves, inscrutably, The Drips – surely the raindrops or the petals or the snowflakes would have been sooo much nicer – played the perfect opener to Ahmad Jamal, producing beautiful sounds and some hint of the panoply of effects and textures they have at their feet and fingertips in brief pieces that came quickly to a point of excitement and intensity and stopped. Within these little cameos, poignant open melodies dissolved briefly into abstract texture and controlled chaos, and it was all of a piece. Perfect. Tasty. And respectful of the major figure they were supporting – whose career reaches way back beyond the days when he was a significant influence on Miles Davis – who never hid that, even telling his pianist Red Garland to play like Ahmad Jamal on certain pieces and taking friends to hear the great pianist right up into his last years.

Jamal’s quartet avoided sounding like a trip down memory lane in contrast to Dewhurst and buddies by opening with a free textural, atmospheric play of percussion (Manolo Badrena), drums (Herlin Riley) and bass (James Cammack) and then, with Jamal at the piano, moved into a powerful Afro feel. Badrena, with his Amish beard and smile of crazy joy, looked like a cross between a rude farmer of the veldt and a religious ecstatic dancing with serpents in the Appalachian mountains. Sometimes he edged the music with a fine mist of minute silver bell-like particles and sometimes startlingly released percussive vocalizations as if he was speaking in tongues; also a brief banshee cry and various mutterings and chortling of night creatures. For a while it was a dialogue between Jamal, propelled by driving, functional bass and drums. The latter moved to the foreground further into the concert with sensational effect.

Jamal played funky stabs and crashes across the beat, leaving open space or linking them with glittering, liquid yet brilliantly articulated arpeggios. They could have sat on this feel forever and we would have risen cheering at the end, but suddenly everything dropped to an intimate level and Jamal played that ancient tune The Gypsy with immaculate little stops breaking the melody into rhythmic segments. This was indeed the prevailing pattern overall. Surging shouts of rhythm and sudden cuts to intimacy. Sometimes they broke into an irresistible swing: tight, together, and more intense for being held for the most part at an intimate level. It was flying and right down. It got down in every sense.

They also played some ballads, including Everything Happens To Me, It’s Not For Me and I’m Glad There Is You. One of these was played unaccompanied by Jamal. I’ve forgotten which tune but retain the beautiful sound and feeling that he drew from the piano.

Sometimes Herlin soloed to devastating effect, in a shattering but supremely musical barrage. Sometimes you were barely conscious of the bass until it emerged at exactly the right place with a passage of big fat gritty pizzicato notes or a brief bowed figure of rich trembling power. So right did everything sound, so in its place, that the whole concert might have been one continuous composition. In fact it was a masterful interweaving of the arranged and the spontaneous. Near the end sections of the crowd broke into applause as they recognized an old favourite. It is not a practice I particularly favour, but in this case I was impressed that they recognized Poinciana – for of course it was that – from the introductory vamp Jamal had used back in the 1950s.

The happiness of the players as they interacted, the way they smiled as Jamal did his Ahmad Jamal thing as well and possibly better than he ever had, and of course the ebullience of Badrena – whether he was playing explosively or with infinite delicacy – made this both a great show and a supremely musical recital. The sound, incidentally, was lucid and shining at all dynamic levels where I sat, with the artist Michael Fitzjames on one side and, as it happened, James Valentine on the other. We were unanimous.

Michael and I took our time strolling out to confront the view, with all the lights washed clean as if it had just rained – the music sounded like that too – and walked slowly to the Quay for our traditional gelato. I have always loved the way certain red lights stretch in a band from a far shore, striated by tiny waves, like the element in an electric toaster.

Lights on black water and a few reflections on what we had heard. While some players are vital and important for being in the vanguard of a new movement, there are others, like Jamal, Errol Garner and Thelonious Monk, whose playing can be linked to the old and the new and is of and yet distinct from both.

Sometimes Jamal played as sparely as Count Basie, sometimes he was florid as Rachmaninov. He made the piano crash torrentially and he made it ping and ripple. Like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, to switch instruments, Jamal did not, when he played a popular tune, restrict himself to those that had become jazz standards. Back in the 1950s he also played tunes that were popular right then, at that moment – such as The Party’s Over, and even Theresa Brewer’s juke box hit Music! Music! Music! Just as Sonny Rollins had played the Johnny Mathis hit Wonderful! Wonderful! and Miles Davis the Disney theme Some Day My Prince Will Come. His aim seemed to be to please – and he was indeed very popular – but he insisted that he aimed to inspire and stimulate. He reacted angrily to the suggestion that he was an entertainer. Ah these are fine lines. Noel Coward was an entertainer. And much more. Cannonball Adderley, who was a fan, did suggest to others that they catch him near the end of the night when the musicians were there and when Ahmad played a lot tougher. I think we heard the spectrum – even those moments that strayed close to cocktail piano. I’m glad we heard that too – it is all part of his oeuvre, and in fact I like good cocktail piano (though not on stage for a whole concert).