Ahmad Jamal: Emerald City Nights album review — two thrilling sets from the dynamic pianist

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Pianist Ahmad Jamal’s dynamic touch and gripping group narratives are well-documented on disc, and his influence on Miles Davis established. His live recording of “Poinciana” was a crossover hit in 1958, and, at 92, he is still playing. Yet he remains somewhat sidelined from the main thrust of jazz.

These two thrilling double-CD sets, recorded in Seattle’s Penthouse jazz club in 1963-64 and 1965-66 and selected by the pianist from a cache of radio broadcast tapes, capture his aesthetic in good-quality sound. Their repertoire features originals and contemporary jazz covers. Bits of songs are extended; grooves, once established, are given air to breathe; and each track seems to unfold as a pre-composed whole. Nowadays, such an approach is par for the course but at the time theme-and-variations practices dominated, and it was seen as an interesting quirk.

Album cover of ‘Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse (1965-1966)’ by Ahmad Jamal

The second volume establishes the Jamal approach right from the start. “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” begins with lush unaccompanied balladry, darts sideways, stops dead, accelerates to fast-walking swing and 15 minutes later eases back to the theme. “Who Can I Turn To” comes next, played as a ballad with orthodox bass and drums. Here Jamal creates narrative shapes with block chords and light-touch runs. And the dynamic ebbs and flows of “Feeling Good”, soon to be a Nina Simone hit, are sustained for nearly 10 minutes.

Elsewhere, the impressionist “Concern” and waltz “Minor Moods” are original work, “Poinciana” is revisited with a throb of mallets, and saxophonist Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not”, taken at speed, enters themeless with a burst of stride. But whichever tune Jamal unpicks, it ends up sounding fresh minted and new.

★★★★☆

Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse (1963-1964)’ and ‘Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse (1965-1966)’ are released by Jazz Detective

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