The great pianist Ahmad Jamal, a legend of the music, in this exclusive interview talks about how Duke Ellington played a central role in his formative years and how he remains a great inspiration, recalling a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York on 14 November 1952 when Jamal appeared on the same bill as Duke, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker among other jazz icons. Jamal also explains some of the song titles on latest album Saturday Morning, and describes just what his home town of Pittsburgh means to him
How would you say Saturday Morning is different to Blue Moon?
Every project differs in many, many, ways. Each has its own special development.
In ‘Back to the Future’ is there a sense for you of what goes around, comes around?
'Back to the future' is about pulse.
The title track, ‘Saturday morning’, has a real conversation going between you and Reginald Veal. Is improvising at a fundamental level like conversation?
There is always a relationship between myself and the players I surround myself with. Improvising is highly misunderstood, and is an acquired skill.
Why call the record ‘Saturday morning’, is there something that bit special about a Saturday morning?
There are many special things about ‘Saturday Morning’, beginning with the fact it was written on a Saturday morning.
‘Edith’s Cake’ is an intriguing title. Can you tell me a little about why it’s so named?
Named and written for the wife of my discographer, Jean Prince. Her name is Edith Prince, and she always bakes me a cake when I am in France.
Which version of the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields song ‘I’m in the Mood For Love’ did you first hear first; and can you remember if you heard it first live or on the radio?
Probably heard this in my teens.
Tell me about the musical rapport you have with Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley and Manolo Badrena. Where did the four of you play for the first time as a unit, and what struck you about this particular combination that made you first think: yes, this works?
Herlin Riley joined me in the 80s. Left New Orleans and began touring with me for a number of years. Manolo Badrena has been performing and recording with me since the early-80s, is known for his work with Weather Report (30+ years), A&M Records, Michael Franks and many others. The recording of Blue Moon, was the first time Reginald Veal performed with my ensemble. Reginald was introduced to me by Herlin Riley. All of these gentleman are of the highest rank musically and otherwise, and yes “it works” not only in the recording studio but also in the various halls in which we perform.
What music do you listen to nowadays for kicks; and has your own listening changed in recent years? I know a lot of younger musicians such as Robert Glasper have been inspired by your music in recent years.
I listen to me first, and my habits over the years have not changed. Good music only!!!!
How is working with Herlin different to working with Vernel Fournier in the 1950s and 60s? Do they share some things in common?
I have had some of the best drummers in the world. The common denominator is: they are all from New Orleans. One of the most gifted drummers in the world, Idris Muhammad performed and recorded with me for many years as well. The late Vernel Fournier will always be remembered and respected in the musical world as one of New Orleans’ elite drummers and personalities!! Herlin Riley carries on the tradition and is recognized the world over as one of the brilliant practitioners of the art form.
Did the tunes and arrangements for Saturday Morning take a long time to think about beforehand, and did you road test any of these tunes before entering the studio?
I draw upon the vast repertoire I have accumulated over the years, and arrangements are completed before entering the studio. ‘Saturday Morning’ was introduced to my audience at Davis Hall in San Francisco earlier this year.
Is there something special in the air in La Buissonne and had you worked there much before? What are you looking for in a studio setting?
Had recorded Nature at La Buissonne and returned there for this project. Studios must be warm and inviting, and not clinical and sterile in appearance and atmosphere.
Tell me about your arranging and compositional approach particularly in terms of “the song”. Is the first statement of the melody the foundation on which everything else is built?
I have been composing and arranging since the age of 10. The direction can come from lines played by my left hand or melodic structures in the upper portions of the piano or a combination of both.
A “piano trio-+” is one way of looking at both Blue Moon and Saturday Morning; but it’s not just about four people. Do you see yourself as leading and inspiring three other rhythm players; or are you one of four melodicists?
I have performed in all musical configurations known or unknown. Duos, quartets, large ensembles, the Cleveland Pops Orchestra, voices, song and dance teams, etc. Whatever the configuration, profound leadership is required and proper direction.
Horace Silver must mean a lot to you. That opening figure on ‘Silver’ has a slight Cape Verdean feel and I’m guessing that was deliberate. You almost go into boogie-woogie at one point later but then draw back. What aspect of Silver’s music do you identify with most, and why?
Horace is an ensemble player like myself and is a prolific composer. ‘Silver’ was written about five years ago with Horace in mind.
How do you approach something as familiar as ‘I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good? It’s so very thoughtful and contemplative at the beginning and then there’s that quote you make from ‘Take The A Train’, isn’t there? What do you think Ellington contributed to your approach as an artist fundamentally?
Duke Ellington played a central role in my formative years and remains a great inspiration. I participated in the historic event at Carnegie Hall in 1952, celebrating his 25 years as a band leader. The concert included the following: The Duke Ellington Orchestra, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker with Strings, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and Ahmad Jamal. I am the only living headliner from the above list. There may be some sidemen still living.
Billy Strayhorn was from Pittsburgh as you are and went to Westinghouse High School as you did. Do you ever play Pittsburgh these days? Can you tell me a bit about what Pittsburgh means to you?
According to information I received while growing up in Pittsburgh, Billy attended Peabody High School. I sold papers to his family at the age of seven but Billy had already joined Duke by that time. Erroll Garner, Dodo Marmarosa and myself, all attended the same elementary school (Larimer Elementary), and Erroll and I attended Westinghouse High School. For those of you who have never heard of Dodo, he worked with Artie Shaw and is heard on some of Artie’s most successful recordings. He also performed with Charlie Parker. Pittsburgh is one of the most important cities in the world for producing outstanding musicians, playwrights, singers, and dancers, and scientists, and industrialists. It is a very, very, special place for me. So special I wrote and recorded a composition titled ‘Pittsburgh’. Dedicated to my mother and my native town.
On ‘One (Ahad)’ at the beginning I was thinking of the Isleys’ version of ‘Summer Breeze’ a little for a few bars and later in your repeated “answer” phrase. How did you approach writing this tune and what did you have in mind as the performance unfolded in the studio?
‘One (Ahad)’, was not written by me, it was written for me. The composer is the late Sigidi Abdullah, one of the most talented composers I know of and the man who put the SOS band on the map by writing ‘Take Your Time, Do It Right’. I recorded it many years ago, and did this recording because it is such a favourite with my fans.
Ahmad Jamal pictured above. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot