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Influential jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal has released a pair of archival albums

US jazz pianist and composer, Ahmad Jamal (born Frederick Russell Jones) smiles during the Marciac Jazz Festival on August 3, 2016 in Marciac. / AFP / Rémy GABALDA / NO COLOUR VERSION AVAILABLE (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP via Getty Images)
US jazz pianist and composer, Ahmad Jamal (born Frederick Russell Jones) smiles during the Marciac Jazz Festival on August 3, 2016 in Marciac. / AFP / Rémy GABALDA / NO COLOUR VERSION AVAILABLE (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP via Getty Images)
https://ondemand.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/me/2022/11/20221128_me_ahmad_jamal.mp3?orgId=596&topicId=1106&d=316&p=3&story=1139388807&ft=nprml&f=1001

With a style both sophisticated and sanctified, Ahmad Jamal is known for an artful use of space in his music, which goes hand in hand with his dramatic sense of tension and release. He stands as an inspiration to peers like Miles Davis and countless others — including scores of hip-hop fans, who know Jamal through a few iconic samples of his work.

Zev Feldman is a record producer who has become synonymous with the discovery of archival gems, including two new volumes of live performances from Jamal that find the pianist in his prime, between the years 1963-66, they've titled Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse. Together the recordings capture a jazz master at a dynamic peak, leading a succession of trios with a light touch but absolute command.

Jamal spoke to WRTI's Nate Chinen about the new archivial collection and the process of looking, sometimes, in the rear-view mirror.

To hear this story, use the audio player at the top of this page. Copyright 2022 WRTI . To see more, visit WRTI.

Transcript :

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Few musicians have stood at the top of their field longer than pianist Ahmad Jamal. For more than seven decades, he's been a solo artist of rare distinction in jazz. On Friday, he dropped a pair of archival albums. Nate Chinen from member station WRTI has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "KEEP ON KEEPING ON")

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: With a style both sophisticated and sanctified, Ahmad Jamal is known for his artful use of space in music and a dramatic sense of tension and release. He's been an inspiration to peers like Miles Davis and countless others since, including scores of hip-hop fans, who know him through a few iconic samples of his work. Jamal himself is now 92. His active touring days are probably behind him. His most recent studio album was the exquisite "Ballades," which arrived late in 2019 on the cusp of pandemic stillness. But in the quiet of these last few years, he had time to take stock of his career. He told me that one surprising source of light came from some music he made in the mid-'60s at the Penthouse, a noted Seattle club.

AHMAD JAMAL: Charlie Puzzo's place. He kept an orderly room. You couldn't make noise. You were out of there if you didn't pay attention to music. And this is one of my most enjoyable places to work, venues. I never thought in terms of them unearthing these recordings, though. These were broadcasts we did. And I never dreamed of it happening. Fifty-nine years later, here comes Zev Feldman with this idea.

CHINEN: Zev Feldman is a record producer who has become synonymous with the discovery of archival gems. He formed a new label imprint, Jazz Detective, in order to release these forgotten Ahmad Jamal recordings, now titled "Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse." They're out in two volumes, one covering the years 1963 and '64, and the other spanning '65 and '66. Together, they capture a jazz master at a dynamic peak, leading a succession of trios with a light touch but absolute command.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "BOGOTA")

CHINEN: Jamal prefers to call live albums remote recordings. And they play an outsized role in the pianist's career. His album "At The Pershing: But Not For Me" was released nearly 65 years ago. It spent more than a hundred weeks on the Billboard chart and has become a cornerstone of the jazz canon. It's one reason that Jamal should be considered a key architect of the piano trio. But when I made that suggestion, he pushed back.

JAMAL: I don't like the word that much. And I don't think in terms of ensemble. It does - I've work in small ensembles or large ensembles. I worked with orchestras. And I grew up in orchestras, so I think orchestrally. So I - it's very difficult for me to relate to the term trio. Small ensemble or large ensemble, that's what I do.

CHINEN: The music bears out his point. More than almost anyone you can name, Jamal expresses an orchestral sensibility at the piano, whether he's playing at a whisper or a rumble. "Emerald City Nights" is a reminder of just how magnetically he could embody that idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "LOLLIPOPS AND ROSES")

CHINEN: These albums are a welcome grace note in a distinguished career. Though, Jamal is predisposed not to think that way even now.

JAMAL: Well, you know, I'm not Sweet 16 anymore, Nate. I was 92 July 2, so 92-plus and growing. And when you reach my age, you reflect on a lot of things. You reflect on what you haven't done. And sometimes, there's sadness. But you can't go back. You have to accept what is.

CHINEN: That notion of living in the moment with an awareness of what's come before is, in many ways, the spirit of jazz. It resides in these recordings from nearly 60 years ago, pointing firmly toward a future we now inhabit with Jamal still here to show the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "POINCIANA")

CHINEN: For NPR News, I'm Nate Chinen.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "POINCIANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.