Sunday, October 15, 2017

Ahmad Jamal on Mosaic Records

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Kenny Washington: “How did you come up with your concept of less-is-more?”

Ahmad Jamal: “… I think it has to do with philosophy and how I approach the disciplines. There’s a discipline in music. There’s an amount of showiness and showing off in front of musicians, which is always a mistake. So I kind of backed off sometimes and I think it’s part of the discipline that I’ve employed through the years. I still have that. Some people call it space, but I call it discipline.”

“These sides are glistening examples of the polished skill and remarkable interplay that are the hallmarks of the Jamal trio.  Israel Crosby is on-hand to give imaginative and rock-steady support. Vernel Fournier is, as ever, fluid and quick as mercury. Jamal displays all the qualities that have elicited so much vociferous respect from fellow musicians, critics and records buyers ….”
- Jack Tracy/Original liner notes to Jamal at The Pershing, Vol. 2

“The mid fifties was a fertile time for Jazz; fresh, original ensembles were taking shape all over the country. The Modern Jazz Quartet, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, The Jazz Messengers and the Ahmad Jamal Trio immediately come to mind. Among musicians, each group had its imitators and its creative disciples who took its innovations one step further.

But no group in this era was as pervasive as the 1957 incarnation of Jamal’s trio with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier. Like the Nat King Cole Trio of the previous decade, its influence penetrated so many different aspects of music.

Jamal is first and foremost a pianist with a natural gift for the instrument. His technique, dynamics and control are something to behold, but the mind that manipulates what comes out of the piano is extraordinary.  Like only the greatest of improvising artists, Jamal is a master architect, realizing with his mind conceives with seeming ease.”
- Michael Cuscuna, Mosaic Records


My feelings about the music contained in this nine-CD set [MD9-246] can be summed up with the expression on Ahmad’s face in the following photo:

Click on this link to Mosaic Records for more information about the set’s discography.

Around 1958, when I first heard pianist Ahmad Jamal on many of the trio LP recordings that make-up the Mosaic boxed set, I was immediately reminded of Erroll Garner.

I was vaguely aware that both Ahmad and Erroll were born and raised in Pittsburgh, but I didn’t know that Garner was his “biggest influence” [Jamal speaking to drummer Kenny Washington during a 2003 KBGO radio interview, a transcription of which is included in the insert notes to the Mosaic boxed set].

For those readers who are not familiar with Erroll Garner’s inimitable piano playing, perhaps the following description of it may prove helpful:

Unique is an inadequate word to describe Erroll Garner. He was a musical phenomenon unlike any other. One of the most appealing performers in jazz history, he influenced almost every pianist who played in his era, and even beyond. Self-taught, he could not read music, yet he did things that trained pianists could not play, or even imagine. Garner was a one-man swing band, and indeed often ac­knowledged that his main inspiration was the big bands of the thir­ties—Duke, Basie, Lunceford, et al. He developed a self-sufficient, extremely full style that was characterized by a rock-steady left hand that often sounded like a strumming rhythm guitar. Juxtaposed against this was a river of chordal and single-note ideas, frequently stated in a lagging, behind-the-beat way that generated terrific swing.”
- Dick Katz, Pianists of the 1940’s and 1950’s in Bill Kirchner, ed. The Oxford Companion to Jazz [New York: Oxford, 2000, p. 365]

The point in comparison between Garner and Jamal styles had to do with this part of the above quotation: “rock-steady left hand that often sounded like a strumming rhythm guitar. Juxtaposed against this was a river of chordal and single-note ideas, frequently stated in a lagging, behind-the-beat way that generated terrific swing.”

You can listen Erroll’s distinctive approach in the following YouTube.

But why did this comparison between Ahmad and Erroll come to mind as Jamal does not do what Garner does with his left-hand?

The “…river of chordal and single-noted ideas, et al.” struck a responsive chord [bad pun intended] as both pianists seem to gush forth with improvisatory ideas, but only Garner emphasized the rhythmic pulse of a piece by playing four-beats to the bar with his left-hand.

And then it dawned on me!

Jamal had substituted bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier in place of Garner’s left-hand thus freeing up both hands so that he could dart in and out of the time and play over the time using astounding runs, arpeggios, quotations from other tunes, counter-melodies and even counter-rhythms.

What sets all of this off is Jamal calculated use of space, something that rarely enters into Garner’s style because Erroll is always playing – there is no space.

As you can hear in the audio track to the above video, Garner can’t wait to finish one improvised phrase before starting another while Jamal, on the other hand, might play an idea, let it linger, leaving a space in which the bassist and the drummer continue to play before coming back into the tune again and exploring how other ideas might work. Jamal now had both hands free to build Garner-like orchestral creations.

Put another way, no Erroll Garner no Ahmad Jamal: Ahmad replaced Erroll’s always driving left hand with the always driving Israel Crosby-Vernel Fournier rhythmic pulse that he darted in and out of or played Erroll like orchestral phrases over.

But this wasn’t just any rhythm section that Ahmad was abandoning responsibility for the time to. With bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier he had a well-oiled rhythm machine.

Crosby was a master of the walking bass which Gunther Schuller defines as: “In Jazz, a line played pizzicato on a double bass in regular crotchets in 4/4 meter, the notes usually moving stepwise or in intervallic patterns not necessarily restricted to the main pitches of the harmony. The style arose as the use of stride piano patterns declined, …, it has since become lingua franca for Jazz bass players, allowing them to contribute pulse, harmony and countermelody simultaneously.” – The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz [p. 1257].

John Voight describes Crosby as “… one of the earliest virtuoso double bass players, capable of improvising melodic solos, rhythmically exciting accompaniment and scalar walking bass lines.”  – The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz [p. 257].

Although he was one of the busiest drummers in Chicago by the time he joined Ahmad in 1958, Vernel Fournier was born and raised in New Orleans and his drumming never lost some of the syncopated, cadence feeling associated with the famous marching bands of the Crescent City.

According to Jack Chambers in Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis:

“Despite his exposure in Ahmad’s trio, Fournier never received full credit and remains relatively unknown, but he is a percussionist of extraordinary delicacy. Jack DeJohnette, a much younger Chicago drummer says, ‘One day I heard Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing [a Chicago nightclub], and I heard Vernel Fournier on drums. His brushwork was so incredible – I mean just impeccable.’” [New York: William Morrow, 1960,p.202]
Vernel’s drumming has a bounce, a jauntiness and a swagger to it that seems so characteristic of New Orleans in its heyday.

His brush work has a big fat, meaty sound, his stick work is clean and crisp and his time is flawless.

Fournier is from a  period in Jazz drumming when it was almost an inviolable rule that whatever rhythmic figures you played on the snare and bass drum, you had to intersperse them within the cymbal beat.

No matter what else you played as accents, you had to keep the insistent chang-a-dang, chang-a-dang, chang-a-dang going.

This was also true of licks, kicks and fills; you played these in such a way as to return the music as neatly to the cymbal beat as possible.

[When using brushes on the snare drum, the “cymbal beat” was replicated with by crossing the right brush over a swirling pattern being made by the left brush.]

Momentum, swing, metronomic time – whatever you want to call it – were all driven off of a cymbal beat, preferably one that was in lock step with a walking bass line.

No bassist and drummer in the history of Jazz ever locked-in better in a trio format than Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier.

Vernel also feathers the bass drum, another technique that was very much a part of modern drumming before the advent of the Elvin Jones and Tony Williams freer or looser style.

Feathering involves using the bass drum petal and the beater ball to lightly tap the bass drum, four-beats to the bar.  It is a vestige of the earliest time in the history of Jazz when drummers carried the beat on the bass drum in a more pronounced manner.

Beginning with the bebop era in the 1940s, especially with some of the more frenzied tempos associated with bop, drummers took carrying the beat off the base drum and brought it up to the ride cymbal, using the hi-hat or sock cymbal to heavily accent only the second and fourth beat of each bar.

In effect, this loosened up the sound and the feel of the rhythm so that it fit better within bebop’s melodic and harmonic framework.

It also helped prevent the poor drummer’s foot from falling off while trying to play the bass drum constantly during some of bebop’s wickedly fast tempos.

Some drummers got caught up in the changer-over from traditional Jazz and swing to bop with the result that while they could play the looser feeling time on the cymbal or with brushes, they never got away from playing four-beats-to-the-bar with the bass drum.

Instead, they toned-it-down, hence the advent of feathering.

Given how quietly it is played, the feathered bass drum generally went unnoticed particularly with the loudness of brass and reed instruments in a bop combo.

However, in a piano-bass-drum configuration, the net effect of the feathered bass drum was to give depth to the pulse of the beat, make it more insistent and drive it more.

I always thought that that the combination of Israel Crosby’s superb walking bass and Vernel’s fat sounding brush work gave Ahmad’s trio a driving propulsion and forceful swing that other trios rarely achieved.

But whether it was due to my wonky ears, the manner in which the original LPs were recorded, or my under-performing audio playback system,  I missed actually “hearing” the added ingredient in the Jamal’s trio swing: Fournier’s feathered bass drum.

However, because of the improved sound quality made possible by Mosaic’s digital transfers, the feathered bass drum is no longer hidden and is revealed throughout these recordings.

For example, as the time switches from a “two” feeling to a straight "four," you can hear Vernel’s feathering of the bass drum beginning at 1:55 on Angel Eyes, the Matt Dennis tune from the Mosaic series which is used as the audio track for the following YouTube tribute to the classic Ahmad Jamal Trio of 1957-1962.

Here’s are Kenny Washington’s thoughts about the tune:

“The Matt Dennis song Angel Eyes is one of the great torch songs of all time. Ol' Blue Eyes owned this one. I especially love the last lyric "scuse me while I disappear." A year earlier, Gene Ammons had had a hit with this standard. This tune is usually done as a ballad, but Ahmad takes it at a nice medium tempo. Ahmad reshapes the form of this standard like a sculptor, to fit the needs of the trio playing a chorus and a half of the melody. He uses the intro as an interlude. For the first chorus of his improvisation, he switches to the regular A-A-B-A song form of the tune. He then goes directly to the bridge and last A section with the interlude. This form is repeated again (bridge, last A and interlude). Listen to how he changes his dynamics to a pianis­simo and brings back the bridge melody. The Gershwin classic It Ain't Necessarily So is quoted for a second time at the last A before the intro is again stated for a powerful ending. This is another one of those performances where there's a lot happening. This marvelous arrangement sounds so natural and the trio pulls it off with such ease.”

Listening to the recordings on the Mosaic 9-disc set, it’s hard to understand why a number of critics rejected Ahmad and the trio’s music at the time of their original release. John Hammond put it more strongly when he stated that Ahmad’s music during the period from 1957-1962 was “scorned by the critics but worshipped by musicians and public alike ….”

Even the enormous appeal of his music to the likes of Miles Davis was derisively described by the noted Jazz critic, Gary Giddins, as an “… overbaked … fascination.”

Martin Williams, another Jazz literary luminary, went even further when he stated that:

“Pianist Ahmad Jamal is a success: he has several best-selling LP's, a supper-club following (which otherwise displays little interest in jazz), and several direct imitators. He has also re­ceived the deeper compliment of having admittedly affected the work of an important jazzman. His success should surprise no one, and his effect on Miles Davis should prove (if proof were needed) that good art can be influenced by bad.

Clearly, Davis responds to some of Jamal's interesting and very contemporary harmonic voicings and the very light, and impecca­bly accurate rhythmic pulse of Jamal's trio, particularly in the support he got from his bassist, the late Israel Crosby, and from his drummer, Vernel Fournier. Further, Jamal has the same interest in openness of melody, space, and fleeting silence that Davis does. But for the trumpeter these qualities can be aspects of haunting lyric economy. For Jamal they seem a kind of crowd-titillating stunt work. Indeed, in a recital like "Ahmad Jamal at the Blackhawk," recorded in a San Francisco night club, it appears that Jamal's real instrument is not the piano at all but his audience. On some numbers, he will virtually sit things out for a chorus, with only some carefully worked out rhapsodic harmo­nies by his left hand or coy tinklings by his right. After that, a few bombastic block chords by both hands, delivered forte, will absolutely lay them in the aisles. And unless you have heard Ahmad Jamal blatantly telegraph the climax of a piece, or beg applause en route with an obvious arpeggio run which he drops insinuatingly on the crowd after he has been coasting along on the graceful momentum of Crosby and Fournier, then you have missed a nearly definitive musical bombast. …” Jazz Changes [New York: Oxford, 1992, p. 281].

But while Giddins, Williams and others thought Jamal’s approach to be limited and limiting, drummer Jack DeJohnette observed:

"Ahmad's always been his own man - way ahead of his time in terms of using space and chord voicings, which is one of the reasons Miles liked him so much. Ahmad knew how to get the most out of his instrument, so that a piano trio sounded like a symphony orchestra. He's a great organizer, and his concept is so sophisticated and intelligent, yet so loose and funky." [Jack Chambers, Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, pp. 202-203]

And Jack Chambers offers these engaging explanations by Ahmad:

To his persistent critics, Jamal replies, "Sometimes people don't identify with pur­ity - that's what my music was then and that's what it is now. I've endured some of the harsh statements, but for every harsh statement there have been 99 compli­mentary ones. What I've done and am still doing is a product of years of blood, sweat and tears, and as long as I am completely secure in the knowledge that what I am doing is valid, then eventually even the most stupid critic has to acknowledge the validity of my work."

Part of the problem critics have with his music, according to Jamal, is that it is understated. "Anybody can play loudly," he says. "It is more difficult to play softly while swinging at that same level of intensity you can get playing fortis­simo. To swing hard while playing quietly is one of the signs of the true artist." Almost completely overlooked by the most negative critics is Jamal's flawless technique. It is a virtue that other musicians, especially piano players, talk about with reverence. Cedar Walton says, "I never heard Ahmad even come close to playing anything without a great deal of technique, taste and timing. When he goes across the piano, he just doesn't ever miss a note - there's never any question. For me, that's still a great thrill, just to hear somebody do that." Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, p. 203]

Summing up Jamal genius, his influence and the significance of the Mosaic set, Michael Cuscuna offered these observations:

“He certainly exercised a profound influence on pianists and his trio set a new standard for what the piano trio in jazz would aim for and achieve. His knack for finding obscure but viable material which lent itself to a jazz treatment was equal to that of Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Rowles. But when Ahmad put an overlooked tune into circulation, it often stayed in the jazz repertoire forever thereafter. And with songs like "Poinciana" and "Billy Boy," it was Jamal's unique and imaginative re-arrangement of the tune which would become the standard form with which to play the piece.

Much like Miles Davis (who incidentally was greatly influenced by him), his influence is felt in music that attempts to replicate his and in great music that sounds nothing like his. But unlike musicians of similar or even lesser impact, the music of the 1957-62 Ahmad Jamal Trio has been mysteriously and distressingly hard to come by, even in the "reissue everything" era of the Compact Disc.

Literally years in the making, this set introduces 23 previously unreleased gems approved by the artist himself. It was delayed by a fire on the Universal Studios lot in California which took much of the original Jamal trio LP masters with it and our search to reconstruct the music on the set from a variety of analog and digital sources sitting in vaults around the world.

It's been a heck of a long time coming and we hope you enjoy The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions.”

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