Harmonia Mundi Musique S.A.S./JazzVillage/[PIAS]
Ahmad Jamal has been considered one of the truly great jazz pianists for some time now – go back through his catalogue and hear how he adapted to electric playing and fusion across the 70s, even dabbling in some soft, chilled funk. And then back out the other side to acoustic piano-based balladry, usually within the confines of a trio or quartet. He’s still playing. And if anything the records he’s made this decade are right up there with his very best sides from the 50s and 60s.
In a couple of weeks’ time he will turn 87. That’s worth mentioning because as he leads a quartet of players – the rest of them half his age or just over – the work is astounding. Magnificent, thoughtful, still stretching out – this is not the work of a guy merely turning up; this is as vital as anything he has released.
France has been kind to Jamal, and so the new album takes its title from there, and was recorded there on the outskirts of Paris.
The title track is presented in three different versions, as a moody, modal opening pieces that wafts delicately into place – that familiar magic of Jamal hitting down with purpose but also leaving glorious space. The song is revisited with French rapper Abd Al Malik performing poetry/spoken word in and around the glorious percussion work from Manolo Badrena. And then the title track resurfaces to close with French diva Mina Agossi singing a gorgeous melody across it.
These three distinct versions of one piece are all highlights. But elsewhere it’s about the percolating groove of Manolo and drummer Herlin Riley. They throw Afro-Cuban rhythms in over ballad feels, they sit back at the right times to let Jamal’s hands drive the rhythm and beneath it all the warm and empathic bass playing of James Cammack. This quartet format has been perfected across the last few albums and it’s sounding so intuitive on this set of songs in particular.
Worth reworking standards with a light and lively touch (Autumn Leaves) or creating deep new funk workouts (Pots en verre) this album has something for everyone and some aspect of everything that Jamal can throw at a tune.
A Brubeck-like dance across Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child is one of the album’s great highlights, and then it’s back to the fiesta fare of Jamal’s superb Macanudo (from 1962) for Baalbeck’s carnival cauldron of funk.
The band is subdued with brushes and bowed bass for Jamal’s sublime waft across I Came To See You / You Were Not There.
Not a note out of place, a brand new modern jazz album that recalls the old times but never feels rooted in just that territory. This is subtle and crafted yet full of exploration and new ideas. The two vocal tracks are highlights, not weird outtake-type things you wish weren’t included (as is sometimes the case). And the instrumentals are majestic, masterclasses.
A living legend at the top of his game. It is in fact impossible to ask for anything more from Jamal and his small combo. They’ve served it all up right here.