Some might maintain that the Pittsburgh pianist Ahmad Jamal is too much of a showman to be a great artist, as they did when he had his slick jukebox hit with Poinciana in 1958. It's undeniable that Jamal can wrap an audience around his lissome little finger with dazzling virtuosity and dramatic dynamics (all executed with a relaxed, broad-grin bonhomie), but his music is about the joys of being alive, not a mountebank's glee at hoodwinking the public. Jamal and his spirited sidemen made a triumphant London appearance last year, and the 83-year-old leader – daintily dapper as ever in a grey collarless suit and with a smile almost as luminous as his music – was just as playfully inventive this time around.
The evening began with an extended parade of the performer's virtues, scattering fragmentary motifs across the cool banter of drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena, hammering low register chords up to fierce climaxes, impassively folding his arms while the volume dropped back to Reginald Veal's plummy bassline against Riley's steady rimshots. Jamal then shared a ballad rumination with Veal that alternated softly stroked melody with bumpy descending chords, while the coolly rocking Saturday Morning (title track of the pianist's current album) balanced a typically irresistible hook, outbursts of borderline-abstract right-hand improv, bell-like trills, subtle drum tones and cliff-hanging halts. The hustling Back to the Future rattled over Veal's booming bass-walk, Jamal pretended to be shocked by Badrena's rainforest vocal-sounds erupting into the lyrical followup, and the snappily grooving Silver preceded a segue of encores – including a sumptuous plucked and hand-drummed Veal solo on Morning Mist, a lightly flouncing Latin swinger, and a funky finale peppered with quotes from the jazz-funk classic The Sidewinder.
The crowds queueing for Jamal's album-signing suggested that he is back to being a big jazz-star, for the second time in his life.
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