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Ahmad Jamal

Biography

Born: July 2, 1930; Pittsburgh, PA  
A sorely underexposed figure and a major influence on Miles Davis, pianist Ahmad Jamal isn't generally ranked among the all-time giants of jazz, but he impressed fellow musicians and record buyers alike with his innovative, minimalist approach. Jamal's manipulations of space and silence, tension and release, and dynamics all broke new ground, and had an impact far beyond Jamal's favored piano trio format. As an arranger, Jamal made the most of Read more his small-group settings by thinking of them in orchestral terms: using his trademark devices to create contrast and dramatic effect, and allowing the rhythm section a great deal of independence in its interplay. Nonetheless, his ensembles were always tightly focused as well, following their leader through sudden changes in tempo or time signature, and often carrying the main riff of a tune.

Jamal's own playing was a model of economy; because he didn't overwhelm listeners with his technique, his flashes of virtuosity had significantly more impact. His lines were spare and light, yet melodically and harmonically inventive, and driven by complex left-hand chord voicings that broke with Bud Powell's right-hand emphasis. A chamber-like sensibility and a classical formality permeated much of his playing, yet he swung like a jazzman without fail. Miles Davis greatly admired him, borrowing liberally from his repertoire and arrangements, and encouraging his pianist Red Garland to imitate Jamal's playing as closely as possible; additionally, Jamal's concepts of space and subtlety greatly affected Davis in his own right, both as a soloist and as a bandleader who (as it's often put) let the music breathe.

Jamal scored a surprise hit LP in 1958 with the live set Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me, which featured his signature version of "Poinciana" and made number three on the pop charts. He recorded a series of popular albums for Argo/Cadet during the '60s, and moved on to Impulse! and 20th Century in the '70s, then Atlantic in the '80s. An association with the French Birdology label in the '90s heralded a creative renaissance, as critics rushed to praise his work and correct past oversights. Read less
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