Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal started playing when he was 3 years old in Pittsburgh, which means he's now been playing for 80 years. His new album, Saturday Morning, often recalls his elegant trios of yesteryear, with its tightly synchronized arrangements, plenty of open space and deceptively simple charm.
Jamal's old trios were quieter — it's no surprise when a pianist plays with lots of energy in youth, and then with more reserve when he or she is older. But Jamal has gone the other way: Over time, he's become more expansive. Bassist Reginald Veal and New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley bring hardcore swing and funk to his new record.
In the composition "Back to the Future," Jamal slips in an on-the-nose quote from "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Jamal is a grand master of seasoning his solos with obvious or covert fragments of songs he's been collecting all his life. Sometimes, those quotes reflect his personal history. A snippet of Morton Gould's light classic "Pavanne" in the midst of "Firefly" rings bells in the distance. Jamal recorded a cover of "Pavanne" in the 1950s, and his version inspired both Miles Davis' "So What" and John Coltrane's "Impressions." Jamal shows he was tuned to AM radio in the '60s, as he quotes The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and The Association's "Windy." But a witty quote alone isn't enough: It's about where you put it.
Ahmad Jamal loves misdirection; he'll sound like he's introducing one tune when he's really lining up another. He rephrases the beginning of 1935's "I'm in the Mood for Love" to resemble "I'll String Along with You," written the year before. That makes a subtle point about how composers rework colleagues' ideas, just as improvisers do.
The pianist combines his love of quotation and misdirection in Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," where Jamal keeps mixing in other 1941 Ellingtonia: "Just Squeeze Me" (also from the show Jump for Joy) and the piano intro to Duke's then-new theme, "Take the 'A' Train," by Jamal's friend from his Pittsburgh days, Billy Strayhorn. The pianist weaves three related tunes into one memory.
One more thing Ahmad Jamal never tires of: the lilt he gets from Afro-Caribbean rhythms. In his first trio, Ray Crawford faked bongo beats on guitar strings; in the current quartet, Manolo Badrena brings out the Latin accents on bongos and conga. He also courageously still uses chime rack and flexatone, long after other percussionists have moved on.
I confess the newer, splashier Ahmad Jamal can send me back to his quietly precise early trios. He's not playing the way he did 60 years ago, now that he's finished warming up.