Saturday Morning – pianist/composer/bandleader and NEA Jazz Master Ahmad Jamal’s new eleven-track album produced by Jazzbook Records, featuring his quartet, drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Reginald Veal and percussionist Manolo Badrena – is his impressive and invigorating follow-up to his GRAMMY® Award-nominated, 2012 Jazz Village release, Blue Moon. With over nearly sixty recordings as a leader, this new album represents another aural chapter in the musical life of this enduring artist; who after six decades on the scene, is finally focusing more of his recorded output on his own compositions.
“It’s a natural transition that happens when you reach maturity; with greater confidence in yourself,” Jamal says. “So, when you have greater confidence in yourself, you begin to explore yourself. And now I’m exploring my own potential.”
Save for his lovely and longing rendition of Duke Ellington’s immortal ballad “I Got it Bad And That Ain’t Good,” and the Doris Day/Les Brown torch song “I’ll Always Be With You;” his impressionistic interpretation of the James Moody-associated jazz standard, “I’m In the Mood for Love,” and a “remix” of a funky, three note-motif tune “One,” recorded in the late seventies by Jamal, written especially for him by the late composer Sigidi Abdallah all of the tracks on Saturday Morning, including the 4/4-Caribbean-cadenced tracks, “Back to the Future,” “The Line,” “Firefly,” “Edith’s Cake,” and the title track, are all written by Jamal. They feature all of the inventions and dimensions of his unique artistry: his profound and powerful pianist amalgam of Errol Garner, Nat “King” Cole and Franz Liszt; his intricate, orchestrally-influenced arrangements, and his signature use of space and dynamics.
“I have a vast repertoire,” Jamal says. “I started composing when I was ten years old, and my influences are far reaching: from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Jimmy Lunceford and Fletcher Henderson to [Claude] Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In Pittsburgh, we didn’t have that line between American classical music and European classical music. We studied it all.”
One track from Saturday Morning bears special mention. “Silver,” a melodic, Latin jazz-tinged composition, is something rare in the Jamal canon: a tribute written by him to a fellow artist – in this case – to the brilliant pianist/composer/bandleader Horace Silver, composer of many jazz standards including “Song For My Father,” and “Senor Blues.”
“I wrote it some years ago,” Jamal says. “Horace is an ensemble player like myself. He’s a leader, and a very successful writer, to say the least. The last time I saw him, I was working at the Catalina club in Los Angeles, and Horace came to see me in a wheelchair … So that shows you his respect for me, which is matched by my respect for him.”
As amazing as Ahmad Jamal is, his musicians are also an important component of his artistry, as evidenced by his current quartet. “My present players are spectacular men,” Jamal says. “Manolo has been off and on with me for a number of years, and played a long time with Joe Zawinul and Weather Report. Herlin’s first job was with me; I took him out of New Orleans in the eighties. Reginald Veal was with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center. They all have great character. And you can’t be a great musician unless you have great character.”
Other equally great musicians of character have played with Jamal over the years, including bassists Jamil Nasser, James Cammack and fellow NEA Jazz Master Richard Davis, and drummers Frank Gant and Idris Muhammad. “I’ve been very fortunate to have harnessed a whole list of notables and great musicians in my groups,” Jamal says. “What they get from me is how to be supportive. And what could be more supportive than Vernel Fournier and Israel Crosby?”
It was the immortal 1958 LP, But Not for Me: Ahmad Jamal Live at the Pershing with the New Orleans-born Fournier on drums with equally ebullient Crosby from Chicago on bass, that catapulted the Pittsburgh-born, former child prodigy who left home at seventeen and scuffled for years in the Windy City, into an overnight sensation. Jamal was so influential that Miles Davis recorded many Jamal-associated songs, such as “A Gal in Calico,” “But Not for Me,” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “New Rhumba,” which was transcribed by Gil Evans into a big band arrangement. Generations of pianists – from Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett to Eric Reed, Jacky Terrasson and Aaron Diehl, proudly acknowledge his influence.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, who have, in pianist Hampton Hawes’ words become, “casualties on the road to truth,” Ahmad Jamal is a soul survivor, who lived long enough to reap the benefits of his Olympian artistry – as evidenced by his 1994 the American Jazz Masters fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his induction into the prestigious Order of the Arts and Letters by French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, who named him an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2007. He’s also sampled by many hip-hop artists including Kanye West, Gangstarr, Jay-Z, and De La Soul.
Saturday Morning represents the latest chapter in an astounding musical life that is far from over. “I’m very thankful and grateful for my longevity,” Jamal says “And I’m looking forward to more discoveries. Every day is a new discovery for me, and that’s what makes life interesting.”