Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Ahmad Jamal's Three Strings

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

FOLLOWING ARE THE LINER NOTES FROM THE ORIGINAL ALBUM PACKAGE. Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing Room: But Not for Me [Argo LP 628]

“Having worked at the Pershing Lounge at various times for the past six years, the idea developed (during a conversation with Leonard Chess (of Chess Records, Sid McCoy, eminent radio personality, and myself) to record our next album there at the Pershing Lounge. This present group of selections is the result. The tapes were made on January 16,1958, and each set of that night was recorded. I have chosen 8 tracks out of 43 cut, and sincerely hope that our listeners will derive some degree of enjoyment from them.

Two of the tunes are former recordings of ours we did some years ago, Surrey With The Fringe On Top and But Not For Me. Both tunes are a permanent part of our repertoire and are frequently requested by our audiences. I make mention here of the fact that of all the tunes in our repertoire, But Not For Me is asked for more than any other musical selection. I am happy to say that for all who enjoyed our former recording, but could not obtain it [emphasis mine], here it is in our present album.

Working with me are two of the finest musicians I have ever known, musically or otherwise, Israel Crosby, our bassist and Vernell Fournier, our drummer. I have had many treasurable moments working with both of these well-known musicians, and am looking forward to all of our future performances together.” 

                                         - Ahmad Jamal

After a successful six year run, pianist Ahmad Jamal’s trio with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums disbanded in 1962. 

In relative terms that’s a long time for a small Jazz group to be together.

It’s longevity may have been assisted by the fact that its Argo recording Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing Room: But Not for Me [LP 628], which was released in 1958, “soared to the remarkable height of #3 on BILLBOARD”S Hot 100 album chart, staying on the chart for an incredible 107 WEEKS, or better than two years.”

Subsequent studio and in person recordings at the Spotlight Club in Washington, D.C. and the Black Hawk in San Francisco also fared well and the Ahmad Jamal trio became a Jazz rarity - a commercial success.

Miles Davis was a big fan of Ahmad’s music, especially his use of space when improvising and his song selections and Miles performed some of the latter from Ahmad’s repertoire on his classic Prestige recordings - Workin’, Relaxin’, Cookin’ and Steamin’. 

Miles continued to emphasize Jamal’s influence in his work by having Gil Evans arrange Ahmad’s New Rhumba for his Miles Ahead Columbia big band recording.

However, because of what appeared as Jamal’s sudden rise to stardom at the end of the 1950s, most Jazz fans were unaware of the fact that the song selections which he favored and the unique arrangements he gave them with stylized introductions, counter melodies, riffs, intervals, shout choruses and a whole host of rhythmic devices actually began in the early years of that decade when Ahmad was fronting a trio with guitar and bass.

This lack of awareness wasn’t helped by the fact that the recordings Ahmad made with this “string” trio were issued on Okeh, Parrot, and Epic, labels that were obscure especially due to their limited distribution. 

But for those of us who were fortunate enough to hear these drumless trio recordings from 1951-1955, listening to them provided an opportunity to hear a work-in-progress as Ahmad evolved into a mature artist with a very confident and refined style by the end of that decade.

Now thanks to the dedicated research and resourcefulness of Jordi Pujol, the owner operator of Fresh Sound Records, we have the recent release of Ahmad Jamal’s Three Strings: The Complete Okeh, Parrot and Epic Sessions 1951-1955 [FSR-CD 1118] boxed 2 CD set with a 23-page booklet replete with a bevy of period photographs of the musicians and other related memorabilia. Order information can be located via this link. 

Typically, during a decade-long period of time, Jazz artists would have changed the tunes and songs that form the basis of their repertoire, but that does not appear to be the case with Ahmad who continued to refine his approach to a select number of melodies. Mainstays of his book included The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, But Not for Me, Will You Still Be Mine?, Darn That Dream, Poinciana and other evergreens from The Great American Songbook.

All are spotlighted on the later Argo and Chess recordings which are still available in CD and streaming formats and the newly issued Fresh Sound Ahmad Jamal’s Three Strings sessions now make possible a comparison of his work throughout the formative decade of the 1950s.

Here’s more background information on Ahmad and information about his early recordings from Jordi Pujol’s insert notes which accompany the boxed set.

“Ahmad Jamal was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1930. He was a child prodigy. Fritz, as he was known, started playing the piano at the age of three.".. .and I've been playing ever since." he recalled. He began formal classical training at the age of seven and soon was immersed in the influence of various great jazz pianists—especially his idol Erroll Garner. 

"Everyone in Pittsburgh knew that young Fritz was a piano genius in the late 1940s, when he used to play in the wee hours of the morning in the dingy upstairs lounge of Musicians Local 471," Harold L Keilh wrote in his column in early 1959 for the weekly Pittsburgh Courier, "...but it seemed that Fritz, like so many others, was destined to remain in the shadows..."

After his professional beginnings in Pittsburgh, he moved to Chicago in 1949. where he fell on hard times, waiting for his union card to be transferred from Pittsburgh to Chicago Musicians Union Local 208. When he finally got it. it would be some time before he landed a good job for the trio he wanted to form. Meanwhile, he would play solo and in various groups until May 1951. when he formed the Fritz Jones trio. Soon after, Fritz became Ahmad Jamal. His drum-less group. Ahmad Jamal's Three Strings, was immediately noted for its disciplined precision. Its dynamism and subtle freshness were hallmarks, and both were evident in great amounts. Legendary producer and writer John Hammond brought the pianist national notoriety through a laudatory article in Down Heat in July 1952. High praise was also offered by musicians, especially Miles Davis, who did not hesitate to say that Jamal was one of his biggest influences.

In this 2-CD set, we can listen to Jamal's remarkable first recordings for the Okeh, Parrot and Epic labels, when his teammates were Ray Crawford on guitar, and successively three great bass players: Eddie Calhoun, Richard Davis, and Israel Crosby. Let's enjoy the captivating and original sound of Ahmad Jamal's Three Strings.

1951 to 1955 were years of semi-obscurity for Jamal playing with Three Strings. Some jazz writers often dismissed Jamal as merely a cocktail pianist working the club circuit. In contrast, musicians offered high praise, especially Miles Davis. Paul J. MacArthur wrote: "Davis's infatuation with Jamal may have even been the catalyst for jazz's modal revolution. On October 25, 1955. Jamal recorded an arrangement of Morton Gould's "Pavanne." In the middle of the arrangement is a brief interlude in which Jamal plays a D minor 7 vamp, then modulates the vamp up to E-flat minor 7. The vamp bears a striking similarity to Davis's "So What," which uses that same progression. Jamal's "Pavanne" predates "So What" by three and a half years."

"Everybody in Chicago loved Ahmad," Ramsey Lewis recalled. "But I noticed, nationally, critics were slow to come around until Miles Davis came through town and made his remark about Ahmad being a major influence on him. Of course, at that point, all the reviewers and critics jumped on board. Musicians, we all looked at each other and said, 'well, they're late, but at least they caught the train."

Starting in the fall of 1956. Jamal embarked on a new stage of his career. It wasn't long before the innovative musician started getting the attention of other players and audiences all over the country.

Firstly with Grass Oliphant on drums, then with Walter Perkins, and finally with Vernell Fournicr. With the latter and Israel Crosby, he managed to form one of the finest trios in the history of jazz - that was until he decided to break it up in the spring of 1962. Shearing wasted no time in hiring Crosby and Fournier. but not for long, as shortly thereafter. Crosby died of a blood clot on the heart in Chicago's West Side Veterans Administration Hospital on August 11. He was 43.

During the six years the trio remained together, Jamal's trio's LPs on Argo sold well, breaking through jazz ranks into the pop bestseller lists. "I haven't rushed to be a star," he said in 1959. "I am happy about the recent widespread acceptance, of course, but the musicians and the fans always knew my trio."

Jamal's success was not an overnight phenomenon. There was a period from 1951 to 1955 in which the young musician faced critics who challenged his artistry. Despite this, he stood firm and remained loyal to his complex ideas, eventually making a lasting mark on the jazz tradition with an inimitable style and unrivaled mastery of the keyboard.”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Steve, as always, for great articles that are always so enjoyable and stimulating to read. Jamal has been a brilliant voice in jazz, and his style certainly evolved greatly over the years, always exciting. We saw him live in Melbourne, Australia, in about 2010, which was a real treat. But I will always have affection for the classic 50s trio with Crosby and Fournier. I look forward to hearing all of these early 50's recordings, and was delighted to find out that (similarly-aged) brilliant bassist Richard Davis was in the early 50s trio.

    Quoting directly from one of your paragraphs: "Paul J. MacArthur wrote: "Davis's infatuation with Jamal may have even been the catalyst for jazz's modal revolution. On October 25, 1955. Jamal recorded an arrangement of Morton Gould's "Pavanne." In the middle of the arrangement is a brief interlude in which Jamal plays a D minor 7 vamp, then modulates the vamp up to E-flat minor 7. The vamp bears a striking similarity to Davis's "So What," which uses that same progression. Jamal's "Pavanne" predates "So What" by three and a half years."
    Coltrane later recorded his "Impressions" tune (over the same So What modal form), but it was this section of Gould's Pavanne melody almost verbatim. Many jazz tunes have subsequently been written over this same modal form, such as a tune Charlie Mariano recorded in the 1960s called "Dear John C".

    Does Morton Gould get his due?


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