A Spirited and Rousing Set
Pianist Ahmad Jamal and his jazz trio were hotter than expected
Leading up to this year’s Wachovia Jazz Series, Spoleto Festival USA folks, jazz fans, and regional critics pointed to dynamic American pianist Ahmad Jamal, 76, as one of the main headliners not to be missed. The artist’s rousing live performance at the Gaillard Auditorium theater on Sunday evening (June 3) did not disappoint at all. There was never a dull moment. Between the flow of musical phrases and ideas and the expressive soloing, Jamal’s band delivered one of the most amazing concerts of the season.
Strolling on stage dressed entirely in white, the bespectacled Mr. Jamal joined his two bandmates, upright bassist James Cammack (situated at center stage), and drummer Idris Muhammad (set up close by at stage right) for a surprisingly boisterous 90-minute set of musical conversations and improvisations. He waved and pointed to the audience before stepping up to the Steinway, striking a few introductory chords before even taking his seat.
The threesome opened with a loud bang: the stormy almost unsettling, descending chords in the intro of “Topsy Turvy,” a high-energy composition off their new album After Fajr. They got everyone’s full attention and held it throughout the program. Jamal pushed the tune from its bombastic theme to a more delicate swing groove, then back again, and out again … directing his mates from over his left shoulder with a wave or a nod. The pianist verbally punctuated certain moments with a deep-voiced “Yeah” or “Yes sir!” during the evening.
Muhammad looked cool in his beret and shades, and kept a straight face with Cammack bobbed, nodded, and smiled through the arrangements. After over two decades of playing together, all three were locked in at every turn, hitting cue after cue and playing off of each other with ease. But there was nothing simple or easy about the musical interaction. Melodically and rhythmically, Jamal’s original compositions were already quite textured and complex. With the combo’s collective embellishment and the bandleader’s stunning staccato 16th-note runs — from the lowest to highest corners of the keyboard — things got even more intense.
“In Search Of” twisted and bounced around 7/8 and 4/4 time signatures with Jamal’s phrasing resembles something a horn player might do. The tune ended on a very, very quiet buzz-roll on the snare from Muhammad and a quick chord and a snap from the pianist.
Every song garnered tremendous applause from the capacity crowd. Set highlights included the rumbling, tom-tom-driven “Gyroscope” (featuring the best-constructed bass solo of the entire Wachovia Jazz Series), “In Search of Momentum” (which found plenty of the stuff), and the beautiful, “Poinciana,” a recent favorite used in the film soundtrack of The Bridges of Madison County (Muhammad’s delicate and deep mallet work was masterful).
Jamal, Cammack, and Muhammad demonstrated terrific personal and musical chemistry. Often tapping both his feet in unison, knocking his knees together, and slamming his fists in the ivories, Jamal actually stood up from his bench on several occasions, turning away from the keys and applauding his colleagues himself.
The trio received an extended standing ovation from the audience and returned not for an encore tune but for a gracious bow. I think I clapped louder than anyone.
AHMAD JAMAL • Spoleto Festival’s Wachovia Jazz Series