In the Key of Light
Ahmad Jamal, a piano innovator that even Miles could respect, brings his ‘small ensemble’ to the Sunset Center.
Thursday, March 18, 2004
It’s hard to believe, but in the dozen years Tim Jackson has been running the Monterey Jazz Festival and the almost three decades that he’s directed Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center, he has never worked with pianist Ahmad Jamal, a bona fide jazz legend. Until this Tuesday that is, when Jackson has booked Jamal’s trio, featuring bassist James Cammack and powerhouse New Orleans-weaned drummer Idris Muhammad, to open the Monterey Jazz Festival’s expanded spring concert series at the Sunset Cultural Center.
There’s no particular reason why he hasn’t presented Jamal before, Jackson says. “It’s definitely overdue.”
The MJF presented three concerts at the refurbished hall last year, and they were successful enough to expand this season’s offerings, which include performances by violinist Regina Carter’s quintet (March 31), saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter’s quartet (April 15) and conguero Poncho Sanchez’s Latin Jazz Band (May 7). Jackson notes that the hall has a special relationship with the MJF, as it was the site of the first Monterey Peninsula concerts produced by Jimmy Lyons, the disc jockey who founded the festival.
“That’s where Errol Garner’s Concert By the Sea was recorded in 1955,” Jackson says, referring to the classic Columbia album that remains one of jazz’s best-selling albums. “After the renovation it made sense to go back to the Sunset, which is now a really gorgeous venue. We’re also planning on presenting a fall series.”
In many ways Jamal is a perfect artist to open the season. Like Garner, he is a Pittsburgh native who was a child prodigy, but where Garner’s inimitable style remained fundamentally unchanged throughout his career, Jamal’s sound has never stopped evolving, growing denser and more declarative over the years.
In his often caustic autobiography, Miles Davis described the impact of hearing Jamal for the first time in the early 1950s. “He knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrased notes and chords and passages,” wrote the legendary trumpeter.
The rest of the world found out about Jamal a few years after Davis encountered him in a small Chicago night club, when the pianist’s classic album Live at the Pershing became a runaway hit in 1958. Featuring Jamal’s trio, the session perfectly captured his beautifully balanced style.
Davis was so enamored with Jamal’s light, dancing sound that he instructed Red Garland, the pianist from his great mid-’50s quintet, to play like him. The trumpeter adopted several numbers from Jamal’s repertoire, such as “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and “But Not For Me,” and recorded his tunes “Ahmad’s Blues” and “New Rhumba,” which became part of Miles Ahead, Davis’s classic 1957 collaboration with arranger Gil Evans.
“He adapted it for big-band exactly as we were playing it with my small ensemble,” Jamal said in a conversation several years ago. “Miles and I had a relationship that was not one of familiarity, though there was a great deal of respect.”
Ahmad Jamal plays Tuesday, March 23, at 8pm in the Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th, Carmel. $25-55. (925) 275-9255.