There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Art tends to spawn two kinds of masters. There are those, like Picasso and Hemingway, universally acclaimed, hailed by connoisseur and layman alike; and there are others appreciated almost exclusively by fellow practitioners—Arshile Gorky, the painter’s painter, Henry Green, the writer’s writer. It’s no different with jazz: For every hundred people you can find raving about Joshua Redman, you’d struggle to uncover one with a kind word for Ahmad Jamal. Everybody these days is raving about Redman, and with good reason. He’s a natural, possibly the greatest tenor player since Sonny Rollins, and at 24 stands a reasonable shot at joining the pantheon of one-namers—Bird, Duke, Django, Louis, Trane. But many who have leaped on Redman’s rave-wagon have also turned a tin ear to Jamal. A cocktail pianist, he’s been called, a second-rater. Well, Jamal has a new recording, and lest we forget that it’s proper to respect our elders, his new disc outshines young Redman’s in every respect.
And that’s no ordinary shine; Redman’s recording is superb. From the opener, Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” to the closing tracks recorded live at the Village Vanguard, Wish is a textbook of soul and swingativity, a sentimental education in stereo. PatMetheny has said that listening to Redman is like listening to the history of sax-playing to date, and while such fraternal blurbing is usually gratuitous—and doubly suspect since the guitarist’s a sideman here—in this case there’s no exaggeration. Redman’s playing is ebullient and lyrical, bluesy and boppish, wry without being overwrought. His solo on “Turnaround” is supremely tasteful, developing the three-note figure that resolves the melody by blowing it into increasingly abstracted shapes, four-tone clusters that yield to fives, then sixes, and finally explode into delicately articulated cascades of bop dexterity, tidied up at the end with an effortless shift back to the blues.
Indeed, Redman’s a blues player to the bone, and even the straightforward bop of Charlie Parker’s “Moose the Mooche” is tinted cerulean. The beautiful rendering of Stevie Wonder’s “Make Sure You’re Sure” is heartbreak blue, Redman’s own “Soul Dance” is lounge blue, and the live tracks—the title cut and bassist Charlie Haden’s “Blues for Pat”—are just goddammn stomp-your-foot funky blue, so funky that the notoriously jaded New York club crowd oohs and aahs throughout.
The highlight of the session is another Redman original, “The Deserving Many.” Set on burn from bar one, Redman weaves an oddly rueful solo in and out of the groove, shifting seamlessly from lovely lines to quick honks and back again, then trading licks with an unusually sharp Metheny. The guitarist is a happy surprise throughout; after so much of his worldbeat warbling in recent years, it’s pleasant to be reminded how he gained his stature as a player. Crisp and tight from top to bottom, Metheny also makes a welcome appearance on acoustic guitar, giving his hyperprocessed signature tone a rest, and he comes through warm, human, and soulful.
Billy Higgins is generally considered to be one of the greats on the drum throne—introducing him to the live audience, Redman calls him “The Master”—but apart from maybe Peter Erskine, a more overrated drummer doesn’t come to mind. Higgins is ubiquitously intrusive, always commenting on the proceedings with his snare drum but without anything to say. He nearly destroys Metheny’s “Whittlin’ ” by clumsily imposing his beloved triplets in virtually every bar, and he absolutely sinks the emotional highlight of the guitarist’s solo in “Blues for Pat.” As Metheny builds to a swinging climax by repeating the tonic in different rhythms, Higgins stumbles forward with a barrage of bad-taste snare drum flourishes, demolishing the groove and the solo in several graceless swoops. When Redman came to Washington last he substituted the very promising bassist Christian McBride for the uneven Haden, so maybe somebody will hip him; Higgins is an awful hindrance.
As the Europeans have demonstrated time and again, live jazz recordings can—and should—sound every bit as marvelous as studio offerings. Jean-Francois Deiber took characteristically especial pains in recording Ahmad Jamal’s trio for Live in Paris 92, and the result is a breathtaking document of a truly splendid performance.
Jamal, who has been consistently underrated and misunderstood in the course of his almost 40-year career, is a masterful arranger, a brilliant orchestral mind who coaxes from the trio format a lushness of texture that is both dazzling and stirring. Miles Davis (among many others) was greatly influenced by Jamal’s emotive rhythmic sensibility, limpid rubato lines dissolving into robust staccato statements, hush becoming harangue, bombast uncoiling into beauty.
This new trio recording, featuring David Bowler on drums and James Cammack on electric bass, is evidence that Jamal has only gotten better. The diffidence of some of his ’70s recordings is safely behind him, and accompanied here by first-rate sidemen who are comfortable with his dramatic and demanding arrangements—shifting frequently in tempo, dynamics, and mood—Jamal cooks, swings, jams, burns, and generally tears the roof off the sucker. “The Tube,” the eight-minute romp that opens the recording, is a warp-speed hoedown in 7/4 time, with Jamal punctuating his solo with oddments of double-chorded percusses, expressionist downward progressions in the left hand, and giddy jaunts through the octaves with the right. Bowler’s dynamic control is astonishing, modulating the absurdly fast eighth-notes of his high-hats with remarkable facility.
Next, Jamal delivers a typically quirky medley of ballads, “Alone Together/Laura/Wild Is the Wind,” meticulously arranged and polished. The trio’s interpretation of “Caravan” is a jam from start to finish; Jamal drops the melody out altogether in some sections and at other points superimposes bits of Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and Monk’s “Misterioso.” Cammack’s groove is tight as a crab’s behind—and that’s watertight—allowing Bowler and Jamal to bounce ideas back and forth in complete freedom. The liner notes tell that it was the first time the group ever performed this arrangement, which makes its pyrotechnics all the more remarkable.
Jamal’s arrangement of Johnny Pate’s classic “Appreciation” is a masterpiece motley of moods. Gliding back and forth between delicate swing and bebop overdrive, with the melody merely a broken compass for the pianist’s rambling explorations, the trio breaks the tune down like 3-D space in acubist painting, trying to get at every side of it—expressive, introverted, modest, manic, joyous. It’s a beautiful performance all around.
Live in Paris 92 serves notice that Jamal is once again at the fore of his craft. Thanks to traditional jazz’s resurgence, the piano trio is enjoying a wider popularity than at any time since the ’50s. We can only hope for more outings with this kind of virtuosity and ambition. Redman’s blue, but Jamal is red, red-hot.