Ahmad Jamal – Marseille (Jazz Village)
“There are no second acts in American lives,” mused F. Scott Fitzgerald. So what to make of pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal, who at 87, keeps reinventing a sound he helped define nearly 60 years ago?
Dismissed as a cocktail pianist by some, lauded as an innovator by others — including Miles Davis, whose sound he greatly influenced — Jamal scored a rare jazz hit in 1958 with “Poinciana.” He’s now enjoying a late-career reassessment by critics and audiences. With nothing left to prove and in complete command of his instrument and his group, Jamal seems willing to open his approach and add baroque and expansive touches to what once was a measured, minimalist style.
Marseille is not quite the triumph of recent releases Blue Moon and Saturday Morning: La Buissonne Studio Sessions, but it’s still quite enjoyable. Here, Jamal leads a quartet comprising frequent sidemen James Cammack on bass, Herlin Riley on drums and Manolo Badrena on percussion.
The title track appears in three versions: a muted, reflective instrumental with martial overtones, which opens the recording; another featuring a spoken-word French version of Jamal’s poem by rapper Abd Al Malik; and finally, a ballad sung by Mina Agossi. Played over a driving rhythm section, “Autumn Leaves” builds from familiar to surprising and back. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” brims with energy as the pianist seems to tease both “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and Miles Davis’ ’80s nursery rhyme “Jean Pierre.” And, on “Pots en Verre,” Jamal appears to glance back to his hit-making days as he pushes forward over an African-Caribbean groove. Second acts? Please.
— Fernando Gonzalez