Saturday, November 28, 2009

November 28: Ahmad Jamal, "At the Pershing: But Not for Me"

Artist: Ahmad Jamal
Album: At The Pershing: But Not For Me
Year: 1958
Label: Argo

They say that the key to being a great artist is knowing how to properly hide your sources and influences. If this is the case, then nearly every jazz giant has succeeded in this, as one of the most important figures in the development of the genre remains tragically underrepresented more than fifty years after some of his most significant recordings. As a major influence on everyone from Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Herbie Hancock, few artists have so singlehandedly influenced so many whilst staying relatively unknown outside of jazz circles. Pioneering the idea that the silence in jazz is just as important as the notes, there are truly few figures in the genre as visionary as pianist Ahmad Jamal. So significant was Jamal's influence, that during the recording of the song "Freddie Freeloader" on the Kind Of Blue record, Davis famous asked pianist Wynton Kelley to, "sound more like Ahmad Jamal." Such reverence and respect from his fellow musicians was not enough to gain him similar notoriety in the public eye, yet Jamal has released more than fifty records over the past five decades, and he continues to make new music to this day. While there are many fantastic albums from which to choose, few will argue that Ahmad Jamal's 1958 release, At The Pershing: But Not For Me, not only represents his finest music moment, but similarly stands as one of the greatest and most influential jazz recordings in music history.

There are in fact three different releases of the album, with the same songs and cover, yet the title is slightly different. The original release of the album was released by Argo Records in 1958 and titled At The Pershing: But Not For Me. Around the same time, Chess Records also release the album with the same title and the same track order. Years later, Universal Distribution made their own release of the album, keeping the track order and cover, yet the took the "At The Pershing" out of the title and slightly altered the lettering on the cover to reflect this change. The three records are identical in terms of content, so when seeking out the record, any of the three releases will suffice. The most stunning aspect to At The Pershing: But Not For Me is the way with which Jamal uses the empty spaces (silence) in his compositions. Though the use of silence is not a common practice within jazz, the fact of the matter is, before Jamal, it had never been such a focus of the music. This style of playing also translated into a drastic change in the blues genre, and the fact that he influenced both genres so heavily pushes his status beyond legendary. Though the general public may not have understood his significance, those within the community certainly did, and his songs have been featured as covers on many albums, as well as serving as one of the most significant musical forces in Clint Eastwood's 1995 film, The Bridges Of Madison Country. Throughout At The Pershing: But Not For Me, Ahmad Jamal spins his own, unique take on many classics, and his efforts prove that, regardless of the material, one can make it "theirs" if they are unique and original enough in their musical approach.

Though Jamal himself is unquestionably the focus and most talented member on At The Pershing: But Not For Me, his backing band proves to be both musically intelligent as well as skilled, and the combination stands as one of the finest jazz groupings in history. Having played alongside the likes of Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson, bassist Israel Crosby is perhaps best known for his 1935 recording with Gene Krupa that features what is widely considered to be the first bass solo ever on a studio recording. It was not until he became a part of the Ahmad Jamal Trio that Crosby truly began to shine, as it is clear that the chemistry between him and Jamal is like that of no other, and the basslines he creates throughout the album remain some of the most uniquely wonderful ever recorded. Drummer Vernell Fournier has an equally impressive pedigree, having been one of the primary drummers for both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie before joining up with Jamal and Crosby. Having backed the likes of Billy Eckstine and Nancy Wilson as a teenager, few artists have spent as much of their life playing at such a high level as Fournier. All of the talent of both Crosby and Fournier is featured on every song, as their ability to fully comprehend Jamal's approach, and more accurately their ability to play along with this new style and make it sound great is what cements both of their names as true legends of the genre.

While it does take all three musicians for the compositions to truly take flight, the fact of the matter is, as one would expect, the focus of At The Pershing: But Not For Me is all on Ahmad Jamal. Playing a bright and crisp style, one cannot say enough about Jamal's liberal use of silence in his piano playing. These moments of piano silence often create a "tension/release" type of mood, as well as accentuating both the rhythm section, as well as the notes that Jamal DOES play. The spots that are "left unplayed" further show Ahmad Jamal's understanding of the music, as well as his deep connection with the spirit of the song, as he is in many ways leaving the empty spaces where he "feels" they should be. His understanding of this idea of purposeful silence is perhaps no more apparent or stunning then one finds on the trio's extraordinary rendition of the classic song, "Poinciana." There is little question that the version of the song found on At The Pershing: But Not For Me is "the" definitive recording, and the massive open spaces left by Jamal are absolutely something that must be experienced firsthand to be properly understood. Whether he is playing his fantastic progressions, or leaving silence which brings with it just as much impact, the influence of Ahmad Jamal's piano work on At The Pershing: But Not For Me is largely unrivaled and it created a true revolution within the jazz genre.

While a majority of the most important and influential jazz musicians are household names, there are a number of equally significant players whose names have been largely lost by time. Furthermore, it is often these slightly lesser known artists who were the "real" innovators and pushed the more popular names into the territory and sounds that would make them famous. Standing high atop this second list is the man who taught the world that the silence in jazz songs can be just as important as the played notes, piano genius Ahmad Jamal. Having recorded for more than fifty years, few jazz musicians have had as long and as distinguished a career, and one would be hard pressed to find any "jazz great" that did not cite Jamal's work as a significant influence on their own sound and style. Primarily known for the way in which he left "open spaces" in his music, when he does play, Jamal's piano work is equal to that of any of the other piano greats, and it is this fact that makes him an undeniable icon of jazz music. Though he has released countless amazing records, it was his work with his trio that yielded his most stunning and influential musical moments. Combining with the bass work of fellow jazz icon Israel Crosby and drumming prodigy Vernell Fournier, the three stand today as one of the most musically creative and pioneering groups to ever record. The true genius and musical superiority of this group is perfectly captured on Ahmad Jamal's landmark 1958 recording, the magnificent and monumental At The Pershing: But Not For Me.

Standout tracks: "The Surrey With The Fringe On," "Poinciana," and "What's New?"

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