Review: Ahmad Jamal at the Royal Festival Hall

Ahmad Jamal. Photo credit: Paul Wood
Ahmad Jamal
(Royal Festival Hall, January 27th 2014. Review by Sebastian Scotney. Drawing below by Geoffrey Winston)

Where do you go for the 'Sense of an Ending'? For the Eng. Lit tribe, it'll  be Frank Kermode; the book club set will succumb to the fey ambiguities of Julian Barnes. But in music you don't just get the sense of the endings, they're real; and there is no one who delivers them with quite the definitive coup de grâce, every time, like Pittsburgh-born jazz piano hero Ahmad Jamal.

The 83-year old tends to end pieces with his hands spread at least three octaves apart, for a single, percussive, incontrovertible staccato chord. It is as if he has said what needs to be said, and he can expect his word to stand. For the other members of the band, the semaphore couldn't be clearer: they all land perfectly on exactly the same dime every time. In one case last night he was already standing to play that final 'envoi'. In another he just sat patiently arms folded. Waited. Kapow.

All that, however, is really just one fine detail. What Jamal's quartet delivered throughout a 100-minute single set (it felt a good deal shorter) was a sense of constant forward propulsion, of groove, of infectious swing, of contrasts in sound and style. Jamal drops in on the standards repertoire and caresses it. His My Foolish Heart was as tender as Bill Evans. Sometimes he hints at the contours of tunes, in a manner similar to that other youthful octogenarian Martial Solal. Then you get a whole section where the band will inhabit an insistent groove, like the irresistible 'forward son clave' pattern which stayed throughout Silver, a tune written for Horace Silver.

Ahmad Jamal Quartet
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved
It is a great band. Percussionist Manolo Badrena has been lending his dexterity and his humour to bands ever since he joined Weather Report in his early 20s. Drummer Herlin Riley is a drummer whose authority and swing stay in the mind - I still haven't forgotten him powering the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the 2002 Proms.  And bassist Reginald Veal's deep and solid thrum and rhythmic energy are inspirational. The quartet earned their standing ovation. The CD signing queue that was forming after the gig for the new album Saturday Morning, issued last September and recorded at the la Buissonne studios in the Vaucluse in the South of France with exactly this personnel, was very long indeed.

Which, after a performance as totally persuasive as this one, was understandable.

6 comments:

  1. Even better than the Barbican last year. Herlin Riley was out of this world!

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  2. Can anyone tell me the name of the final tune of the night?

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  3. What a marvellous concert by one of the great originators of our time,
    so unpredictable!
    Marcus Howell

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  4. Loved it! Tremendous energy, humour, groove... and *that* left hand!

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  5. I agree with the first 'anonymous' comment. I didn't really expect the Barbican concert to be bettered but it was. I also agree with your comment that the concert seemed to pass by in no time at all. Gig of the year to date and he'll almost certainly make my annual top ten again this year

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