"Dynamics have been a natural development for me," says pianist Ahmad Jamal. "I do everything from triple pianissimo to triple forte. That's been a part of my presentation — and it should be a part of the vocabulary if you're going to succeed. Keeping things at one level is very uninteresting and most of the masters don't do it that way. They have a tendency to lean toward special dynamics. It's very enjoyable and very effective."
As a performer, composer, arranger, lyricist, and pianist, Jamal, 76, works from the heart of the American jazz experience — and he shows no signs of slowing down.
On his latest release, After Fajr (Birdology/Dreyfus), the master and his band — bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad — demonstrate an assertive approach to small ensemble performance and improvisation. The trio plan to perform original compositions and reworked standards at this Sunday's concert.
"I don't call it a trio anymore," says the pianist of his current group. "I call it a small or greater ensemble. So I'm bringing the small ensemble. Those words I find to be very limiting, so I don't call it a trio anymore. In Charleston, we plan to play about 80 percent of our own material and about 20 percent of material written by other composers."
The impressive camaraderie among Jamal, Cammack, and Muhammad comes from a great personal and musical chemistry.
"It happens as a result of longevity," he explains. "My bassist James has only been with me 27 years [laughs]. And Idris, one of the most celebrated drummers out of New Orleans, and in the world, is great. I've worked with four drummers from New Orleans and they're among the best of them.
"I've been playing in every configuration known to man for a long time," he adds. "It started when I was three years old and I've been at it ever since — including working with the oldest instrument in the world, the human voice. I enjoy working with the human voice and I intend to do more with it in the future ... music that lends itself to lyrics."
Born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, Jamal first started playing the piano at age three. He studied classical and jazz music in high school, and landed an early gig with George Hudson's orchestra in 1949.
"I was raised orchestrally in Pittsburgh," he says. "It's a very unique city. We have an orchestral approach. It's a very fascinating city for musicians and other people. There are more than hills, steel mills, and coal mines."
Jamal's open-minded attitude about arrangement and orchestration is only one of his great strengths. His astonishing technique on the keys and his sense of time and melody tie in with his fluid performance style as well.
"Every day is discovery," he says. "We are not creators. What we can do is reflect creativity. We can't make a snowflake or a raindrop, but what we can do is reflect creativity if we are in tune with the elements and the things around us. We're all receiving vessels, whether you're Ernest Hemingway or Mozart. What I try to do is make some new discoveries. That's the wonderful thing. That's what happens ... no one is given enough time to accomplish everything they have in their mind. There's always something wanting. But you can reach a satisfactory level, I think, if you pursue and concentrate on positive thinking. I do that on a daily basis.
"Our lifespan is limited and it goes by very quickly," he adds. "Yesterday, I was 15 years old and today I'm 76 [laughs]. And I'm still pursuing some dreams. All of them I won't achieve, but I don't approach it in a morbid or negative sense. I approach it in a realistic sense. You always should have goals and ambitions every day in your life. You put 100 things on paper to do, and if you finish with 10 of them, consider yourself fortunate."
AHMAD JAMAL • Spoleto Festival USA's Wachovia Jazz Series • $15-$75 • (1 hour 30 min.) • June 3 at 7:30 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • 579-3100