Thursday, November 10, 2022

Ahmad Jamal - Emerald City Nights

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

“The first time I heard Ahmad, I was in high school, I was getting ready to go to bed and I had the jazz station on. This was in Philadelphia, where I'm from, of course. And this song came on. "Music! Music! Music! (Put Another Nickel In)," which I remembered from having heard Theresa Brewer do it. So it was a song I knew and somebody was playing piano on it. As I was listening, I was asking myself. "Who the hell is that?" because it was just so unbelievable. The radio announcer said it was Ahmad Jamal, whom I'd never heard of before.

It was on Ahmad Jamal's album, Ahmad Jamal Trio at The Pershing/But Not for Me. Theresa Brewer's record was a hit when I was in junior high school. And then I heard Ahmad Jamal's version on the radio with the piano trio and I just couldn't believe it. I really could not believe it. I immediately went out and bought the record the next day because it was just so fantastic. And I've been an Ahmad Jamal fan ever since then.”

- Kenny Barron, Jazz pianist 

“If anybody has left jazz with an interesting and exciting approach to the piano, it's Ahmad. If someone is learning and getting his own self together, it's not a bad idea to study the piano playing of Ahmad Jamal, Ahmad is one of the few piano players who plays the 88. He plays beautiful ballads. He plays up tempo, medium tempo. He's a complete musician, a complete piano player. He's one of a kind.”

- Ramsey Lewis, Jazz pianist

“These recordings from the Penthouse in the '60s form a masterclass in what I consider to be very important qualities - space, color, control in sound and a solid groove, all while having a sense of adventure and freedom.”

- Aaron Diehl, Jazz pianist

Thanks to the kindness of Ann Braithwaite of Braithwaite & Katz Communications, a distinguished media relations firm specializing in Jazz artists, the JazzProfiles editorial offices received review copies of two, double CD sets featuring legendary Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and his trio  recorded at The Penthouse in Seattle, WA [nicknamed The Emerald City] in 1963-1964 and 1965-1966, respectively.

The following banner from the media release that Ann sent along tells you all you need to know about the discography particulars involved with these recordings.


Two Volumes of Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse, Capture Spectacular 1963-64 and 1965-66 Performances by the Master Pianist's Trio at the Penthouse in Seattle, Also Available as Two-CD Sets [Deep Digs Music Group DDJD-004/005] and Downloads on December 2.

Packages Include Reflections by Jamal, Interviews with Pianists Ramsey Lewis, Jon Batiste, Kenny Barron, and Hiromi. Essays by Eugene Holley, Jr.,

Photos by Don Bronstein, Chuck Stewart and More.”

I will post the remaining information from Ann’s always informative and insightful media communiques further along in this feature.

Aside from their significance in record collectors circles, the release dates of these new recordings are timely if you wish to purchase this music in either an analog or a digital format as a gift for the Jazz fan on your holiday presents list.

Still with us at the age of 92, pianist, composer and bandleader Ahmad Jamal, who also served as the Executive Producer for these recordings, is a seminal figure in the development of modern Jazz.

His influence was felt directly as a result of the many inspired recordings he produced during his seven decade career but also indirectly because of the impact he had on other performing artists who were his contemporaries, not the least of which was trumpeter Miles Davis.

Perhaps best known as an iconic Jazz-Rock Fusion artist by many who first became familiar with his work in the late 1960s, Miles’ roots in modern Jazz dated back to his 1940s association with the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and the Birth of the Cool recordings from the close of that decade.

With Parker’s death in 1955 and the limited impact of the Birth of the Cool recordings on the New York Jazz scene where Miles was based, Miles was searching for a new stylistic identity during the 1950s. 

He found it with a change in phrasing and in a change in the basic tone of the trumpet. As Dizzy Gillespie explains the former - “Phrasing changes every so often and you can tell what age the music comes from by the way it’s played. But Miles only knew what to play from what had gone on before, then he began to find his own identity.”

As to the change in Miles’ sound, Gil Evans offered this explanation. “Miles changed the tone of the trumpet for the first time after Louis [Armstrong] - the basic tone. Everyone up to him had come through Louis Armstrong … but then all of a sudden Miles created his own wave form. It became another sound.”

But how to bring these changes in phrasing and tone into a melodic, harmonic and rhythmic framework?

Enter Ahmad Jamal whose playing Miles had first heard in a trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Eddie Calhoun [later replaced by Richard Davis and ultimately Israel Crosby]. Known as the Three Strings, you can find out more about these early Jamal trios by going here.

“Jamal's enormous influence on Davis gets its first significant airing at a [1955 Prestige] session, and it will persist until it becomes an inseparable element of Davis's style. Here, it is most obvious in the choice of tunes. Both A Gal in Calico and Will You Still Be Mine were part of Jamal's repertoire, and the bright, almost bouncy tempo at which Davis plays them is borrowed directly from Jamal's treatment of them. He had included But Not for Me in a recording session a year earlier, and this Gershwin melody would become known as Jamal's song with the commercial success of his 1958 recording of it. Soon to come were several other Davis recordings of titles borrowed from Jamal's repertoire, including Surrey with a Fringe on Top, Just Squeeze Me, My Funny Valentine, I Don't Wanna Be Kissed, Billy Boy, and the Jamal originals Ahmad's Blues and New Rhumba. No other individual had exercised so decisive effect on what Davis played since his early explorations of the Gillespie-Parker bebop repertoire. [Emphasis, mine]

Jamal's influence went much deeper than just the selection of titles. Melodic understatement, harmonic inventiveness, and rhythmic lightness were part and parcel of Jamal's style and became central to Davis's style and the style of his finest bands ….

Jamal's impact on Davis's musical thinking was pervasive, and Davis made no effort to conceal his debt. "Ahmad is one of my favorites," Davis said; "I live until he makes another record. I gave Gil Evans a couple of his albums, and he didn't give them back." To Nat Hentoff, who had the temerity to tell Davis that he considered Jamal "mainly a cocktail pianist," Davis simply said, "That's the way to play the piano." He then began playing Jamal's records for Hentoff and pointing out Jamal's strengths: "Listen to how he slips into the other key. You can hardly tell it's happening. He doesn't throw his technique around like Oscar Peterson. Things flow into and out of each other." Julian Adderley later became an advocate of Jamal under Davis's influence and he made the same point: "He has a potful of technique, but he has learned restraint." Davis says, "Listen to the way Jamal uses space. He lets it go so that you can feel the rhythm section and the rhythm section can feel you. It's not crowded." For Davis, Jamal's appeal was unqualified. "All my inspiration today," he said in the late 1950s, "comes from the Chicago pianist Ahmad Jamal."”  [I am indebted to Jack Chambers for this analysis of the influence of Ahmad on Miles. It can be found in his seminal Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis.]

Toward the end of the 1950s Miles would move on to other stylistic influences [modal Jazz on Kind of Blue] and Ahmad would retain bassist Israel Crosby and replace guitar with drums in the person of Vernell Fournier about whom Jack DeJohnette has said that his use of brushes was “impeccable.”

From about 1956 until 1959, this version of Ahmad’s trio became widely popular and even produced an album that ran almost 100 weeks on Billboard's top-selling LP list - Live at the Pershing: But Not for Me - on Argo Records. Further details about this period in Ahmad’s career are detailed in Eugene Holley, Jr.'s booklet notes which appear in both volumes of the forthcoming Emerald City Nights release.

After a long residency in Chicago during most of the 1950s, Ahmad moved to New York in the early 1960s and began more than a half century of domestic and international touring with his trio.

These Emerald City Nights recordings were made during the earliest years of those junkets when Ahmad arrived in Seattle and appeared at The Penthouse which Charlie Puzzo, its owner-proprietor, had opened a year earlier as part of that city's 1962 celebration of the World’s Fair.

As the contiguous dates of the new recordings would imply, Ahmad soon became a crowd favorite of Charlie’s place at the corner of First and Cherry Streets in the historic Pioneer Square area of the city and would be welcomed back almost on an annual basis until the club closed in 1968.

From the famed “Pershing Room” version of Ahmad’s trio, Israel Crosby died in 1962 and drummer Vernell Fournier moved on to the George Shearing Quintet so by the time of the first Penthouse recordings in the new Emerald City Nights series, they had been replaced by bassist Richard Evans and drummer Chuck Lampkin.

After a brief recording career with Dizzy Gillespie, including his spectacular drumming on Lalo Schifrin’s 5-part suite Gillespiana, Chuck joined Ahmad in 1963 for a two year stay.

It’s nice to have more recordings that showcase Lampkin’s excellent drumming as he would soon leave Jazz altogether and move on to a new career as a TV broadcaster in his hometown of Cleveland, OH and later in Buffalo, NY. Drummers will welcome more examples of Chuck’s very accomplished skills on the instrument which heretofore have been in short supply.

With his impeccable brushwork on display once again, Vernell Fournier is back for a brief stay on the 1965 tracks and Frank Gant does the drumming honors on the 1966 recordings for what would be the beginning of a 10-year stay with Ahmad.

Every drummer’s time feels different and you can hear how this influences Ahmad’s phrasing throughout these recordings.

Bassist Richard Evans is featured on the 1963 tracks and Jamil Nasser [who began his career as George Joyner before converting to Islam] moves in on the 1964 dates continuing on the 1965 and 1966 and he, too, would have a long stay with Ahmad only leaving in 1972 to take up full time work as a session player in New York.

Booklet interviews with pianists Ramsey Lewis, Kenny Barron, Jon Batiste and Hiromi offer many descriptions of the elements in Ahmad’s style that come together to make it so distinctive and Ahmad also shares some thoughts and examples about how he goes about his business.

Changes in personal notwithstanding, what is markedly different about these Emerald City recordings is their length: six of the 19 tracks are over 10 minutes and five of them are over eight minutes.

Aside from an eight minute version of Poinciana on the Pershing Room LP, there are very few recorded examples of Ahmad stretching out beyond the usual three or four minute cuts that comprise most of his LPs and this includes his “live recordings” at the Spotlight Club in Washington, D.C. in 1958, his own Alhambra Club in Chicago in 1961 and San Francisco’s Blackhawk in 1962 [all incidentally recorded with Crosby and Fournier].

So another of the gifts of these Emerald City Nights performances is that they offer us something very unique in Ahmad’s recorded history - the opportunity to listen to him in full flight in a laboratory in which he is free to explore at length his improvisory musings. 

You can hear him experimenting with counter-melodies, harmonic substitutions, key changes, and his trademark rhythmic riffs - all of which, at times, give some of these performances a slightly unpolished finish, but as such, remain true to the exploratory spirit which is the essence of Jazz improvisation.

The trite expression - “like you’ve never heard him before” - has a real meaning as this is an apt description of what’s in store for you on Ahmad's Emerald City Nights sets. Even his old standbys - Squatty Roo, But Not for Me, and Poinciana - are all given slightly different “takes” [interpretations].

But there are some constants as well: Ahmad’s orchestral approach to the piano in which he accesses all 88 keys of the piano; the long interludes over which he rides the rhythmic section; the constant surprises brought about by abrupt stops-and-starts, the use of dynamics to explode or soften the sound of the instrument, and the frequent insertion of quotes from other songs. The Invitation track on disc 2 from the 1965-1966 is a shining example of all of these qualities.

When you enter Ahmad’s “world” you never know where the musical adventure will take you, but one thing you can be certain of - you will enjoy the ride.

As promised, here’s the remainder of Ann’s media release for Ahmad Jamal - Emerald City Nights:

Producer and music sleuth Zev Feldman launches his new label venture, Jazz Detective, a division of the newly created Deep Digs Music Group, on Record Store Day's November 25 Black Friday independent retail event with the release of two deluxe limited edition double-LP volumes: Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse (1963-64) and (1965-66), featuring previously unreleased performances by master pianist Ahmad Jamal.

The vinyl sets will be issued on 180-gram discs transferred from the original tapes and mastered by the legendary Bernie Grundman. The music will also be available as two-CD sets and downloads on December 2. A third two-LP volume devoted to Penthouse recordings from 1966-68 will be released at a later date. All the packages have been produced by Feldman and supervised by Ahmad Jamal himself.

Taking its name from Feldman's handle "the Jazz Detective" and reflecting his determined work unearthing hitherto unheard, award-winning treasures, the Jazz Detective label is an imprint of Deep Digs Music Group, a partnership with Spain's Elemental Music, with which Feldman has enjoyed a long professional relationship.

Feldman says, "Deep Digs Music Group is a new archival record company that embodies my love and care for archival music around a variety of different genres. Jazz, to no surprise, is an enormous part of the fabric of the company, and the newly formed Jazz Detective imprint will focus on releasing previously unissued jazz treasures such as this wonderful music from Ahmad Jamal. It's an enormous thrill for me to be working with Mr. Jamal, whom I've been listening to my entire life. He's a true original and beyond category. I couldn't be more proud of this new endeavor and these releases."

The new label's premiere offerings feature dazzling performances recorded at the intimate Seattle club The Penthouse by local radio host and live broadcast engineer Jim Wilke. Other magnificent live sets from the venue produced by Feldman have been released by Resonance Records (Wynton Kelly and Wes Montgomery, and the Three Sounds) and Reel to Real Recordings (Cannonball Adderley, Harold Land and the duo of Johnny Griffin and Eddie Lockjaw Davis).

Both Jazz Detective packages include extensive booklets with new reflections by Jamal about his work; photographs by Don Bronstein, Chuck Stewart and others; and essays by Feldman, Wilke, journalist Eugene Holley, Jr., Charlie Puzzo, Jr. (son of late Penthouse owner Charlie Puzzo), and Marshall Chess of Chess/Argo/Cadet Records (the label that released Jamal's bestselling, career-making albums in the V50s). 

The 1963-64 volume includes new interviews with Jamal's hit-making contemporary and Argo label mate Ramsey Lewis and Japanese pianist Hiromi, while the 1965-66 collection contains interviews with 2022 Grammy Awards album of the year winner Jon Batiste, veteran pianist Kenny Barron and virtuoso Aaron Diehl.

On the Penthouse recordings Jamal is heard in his three-piece element, backed by bassists Richard Evans and Jamil Nasser and drummer Chuck Lampkin on the 1963-64 shows and by Nasser and drummers Lampkin, Vernel Fournier, and Frank Gant on the 1965-66 dates.

In 1958, the pianist became a household name — a rare feat for a jazz pianist — with a pair of live trio recordings that soared into the top reaches of the American record charts. Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Pershing: But Not For Me, cut live in the lounge of Chicago's Pershing Hotel, reached No. 3 nationally in the year of its release; its successor Ahmad Jamal: Volume IV, captured at the Spotlight Club in Washington, D.C., climbed to No. 11.

In his overview of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, Kennedy Center honoree, and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, writer Holley says, "Pittsburgh-born Jamal has achieved jazz immortality in a myriad of ways: A child prodigy trained in European and American classical traditions who was professionally working at 14, Jamal developed a protean and profound pianism that ingeniously melded pianist Art Tatum's swing-at-the-speed-of-sound and his hometown hero Erroll Garner's tender and torrid touch with Franz Liszt's boundless keyboard technique and the azure French Impressionism of Ravel and Debussy."

Though Jamal has recorded prolifically in a variety of settings — his most recent album Ballades, a studio session he released in 2019 at the age of 89, comprises solo and duo piano-bass recordings — he has always stated his preference for a live environment.

“There's no comparison between performing live and performing in a studio," he says in the new Emerald City Nights collections. “That's art — performing remotely, not in the studio. It's all live, but remotely from the studio is a science and an art. If you can capture that, as some of us have, you always come up with spectacular things, in my opinion. Being in a studio has its constraints, and has its difficulties. When you're performing remotely, away from the studio, it's a different thing altogether. All you need is a good engineer."

The many unique facets of Jamal's genius are lauded by other players in admiring testimony on the new releases.

"He uses a whole 88 keys on the piano." says Ramsey Lewis, who racked up his own top-10 albums on Argo in the '60s. "With many jazz piano players, the left hand comps and the right hand does a lot of work. Well, we all do that, but there are also many times during that song or other songs during that show that we don't say, 'Look, ma, one hand.' We'd say, 'Look, ma, both hands.’ And Ahmad is one of the both-hands piano players. Left hand, right hand: Ahmad can take care of the business."

Hiromi, who brought Jamal to Japan to perform on tour, says, "What I really learned from his playing is when you improvise or when you write music, you have to tell stones. Jazz improvisation is made of a lot of scales and chord progressions and everything you can learn from the book, but something that you cannot learn from the book is telling your own story. And whenever he plays, I always feel he's telling his story of life. And that's how I want to be."

Jon Batiste, who first encountered Jamal when he was a 19-year-old phenom touring Europe for the first time, says, "When you hang with him, you realize he's a spontaneous composer, in the same way that someone would improvise a solo. He has the ability to compose at that level of hyperspeed. He'll sit down at the piano and he'll play something when you're hanging out and it'll just be him messing around, if you will. From that will come an incredible composition.

You'll ask him, 'When did you write that? When did you compose this incredible composition that we just heard?" He'll, oftentimes, say, 'Oh, just now. I just played that right in this moment.' Typically, when he's in a state of performance, he has the freedom and the mastery to do that."

Homing in on an important element of Jamal's style, veteran Kenny Barren says, "He leaves a lot of space for the rhythm section. And one of the things that's nice is sometimes he'll play an idea, and in the next course you expect him to play it again, except maybe he won't, and the rhythm section plays. So he leaves all of this space for the rhythm section to either finish an idea or complete it. And it's really nice. It's like he kind of orchestrates the piano, kind of orchestrates everything. It's just so beautiful to hear. And I know that's what one of the things that Miles loved about him."

"Miles" is, of course, Miles Davis, Jamal’s most ardent champion in the jazz world. In his 1989 autobiography Miles, the late trumpet player put his finger on the abiding qualities that one hears in Jamal’s music, and on the vibrant performances on Emerald City Nights:

"He knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement and the way he phrased notes and chords and passages …. I loved his lyricism on piano, the way he played and the spacing he used in the ensemble voicing of his groups. I have always thought Ahmad Jamal was a great piano player who never got the recognition he deserved."

For more on the Jazz Detective/Deep Digs Music Group  please go to

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this, once again.
    Here I am at 1am, sipping espresso, trying to shake off the stress of the day gone by. Can't compose with a full head. This is the kind of stuff that gets me going, thank you.


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