Hear him locally
Who: Pianist Ahmad Jamal
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12
Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis
Tickets: $25-$49 general, $12.50-$24.50 students; www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787
Special feature: The UC Davis Jazz Combo will give a free outdoor performance at 6:30 p.m. in the Corin Courtyard adjacent to the box office
By Nate Chinen
As the pianist Ahmad Jamal and the members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra took their bows at the Rose Theater on Sept. 19, someone in the crowd filed a simple but urgent request. “Poinciana!” he shouted against the applause. “Poinciana!” he shouted again, hoarsely. “Poinciana! Poinciana! Poinciana!” Eventually reality set in: the house lights went up, and the audience began to file toward the doors.
“Poinciana,” in case the name means nothing to you, is a tune by Nat Simon that Jamal recorded with his trio in 1958. A small masterpiece of floating groove, careful in its application of pressure, it belongs to the small society of jazz compositions that have become runaway pop hits. Just as “Take Five” defined Brubeck and Desmond, it has been an ageless signature for Jamal — and maybe a bit of a burden, given the irreducible scope of his output since.
Why should it matter that Jamal didn’t play “Poinciana” here, amid the festive light-pomp of the season opener for Jazz at Lincoln Center? He did play it in the same room a couple of years ago; likewise when he opened Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2008-09 season, in a concert structured exactly like this one. And there was a welcome hint of the tune’s gait and bass line in “Saturday Morning,” a quietly majestic ballad that Jamal offered in the first half.
So the omission meant nothing, except perhaps as a metaphor. At the end of an elegant two-hour concert that showcased Jamal’s capacity for building tension within tight spaces, it was bewilderingly easy to feel unfulfilled. Just as that guy barking his request did, I left the Rose Theater in disappointment, thinking about missed opportunities. For me it wasn’t about a song, but rather a spirit of engagement.
Jamal, 83, organizes his music as a series of dynamic events, pinballing between binary extremes: loud/soft, fast/slow, big/small. During the concert’s first half, which featured Reginald Veal on bass, Herlin Riley on drums and Manolo Badrena on percussion, he ran the bandstand like a contractor surveying a job site, often turning from the piano to wave an arm or shoot a glare. Every song in the quartet’s 40-minute set involved a form of Latin rhythm, and every song ended with a crisp, decisive snap.
Riley and Veal make an ideal rhythm team for this music, just as they have for Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director. On “Morning Mist” and “Silver,” they laid an earthy foundation, trancelike but alert. They were impeccable on “Saturday Morning,” the title track of Jamal’s new album on the Jazz Village label, which features the same personnel. But the whole mood was terse, reined in.
That extended to the concert’s second half, featuring enlargements of Jamal’s music by members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. One problem was the harmonic inertia of the material: “Baalbek,” in an arrangement by the alto saxophonist Sherman Irby, couldn’t gather much forward pull even during a trumpet solo by Marsalis. (It was his only solo all night, which made the concert’s title, “Ahmad Jamal and Wynton Marsalis,” a little misleading.)
Where the second half hit its stride was in two arrangements that captured the variability of Jamal’s style. The trumpeter Marcus Printup made “Manhattan Reflections” into an episodic saga, with punchy accents giving way to grand, flowing gestures. And the saxophonist Ted Nash gave “Kaleidoscope” a marvelous range of ideas, including a burst of Dixielandish counterpoint followed by a lush canopy of modern chords, in descending sequence.
Then, after an interlude by Jamal, the band revved back into gear, swinging hard behind a commanding solo by the trombonist Elliot Mason. Somehow this was the evening’s only stretch of swinging rhythm, but that wasn’t why it felt like a revelation. It was because Jamal and the band seemed both locked in and free; for a few fleeting moments, they left nothing to be desired.