Ahmad Jamal – review

Barbican, London

When he found pop stardom in 1958, Ahmad Jamal became a hot ticket for the singles-buying audience, but was labelled a sellout by the jazz police. At the Barbican, the 82-year-old pianist did occasionally linger on that once controversial penchant for honeyed romanticism – but he subverted it with as many wry asides, truculent chord barrages and affectionate mockeries as he has at any time in his long career. The much-played show-song Blue Moon titles Jamal's Grammy-nominated new album, but this gig fizzed with the great pianist's restless musical intelligence.

The opener, Saturday Morning, introduced the device Jamal has spent a lifetime reworking: the brief, motif-like tune that gets played respectfully straight, dropped to a whisper, shouted in a climax, turned into a different song, subjected to a tit-for-tat game with sidemen, and often wound up on a shrugging, throwaway note, as if the pianist was turning off a light. A key contributor tonight was former Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena, with his palette of bird calls, water sounds, chanting vocals and crackling rejoinders to the dynamic drumming of Herlin Riley. The Sammy Davis Jr vehicle This Is the Life was sometimes a trickle of treble melody over quiet hi-hat swing, sometimes a meditation for penetratingly lyrical bassist Reginald Veal, briefly an 80s Miles Davis hook. Jamal's big hit Poinciana cherished the yearning theme, but also set loose an exuberantly dancing Badrena; Autumn Rain touched on hip-hop; and the pianist's makeover of Blue Moon was a reminder of how sharp his ear for a catchy ostinato still is.

The encores to a triumphant performance showcased the sidemen (and included the show's only false note, when Jamal cut Badrena off just as he was coming to the boil), some ultra-hip fast swing, and the leader's lovely original I Remember Italy.

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Contributor

John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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