Ahmad Jamal – review

Royal Festival Hall, London
The Pittsburgh pianist is justly rediscovering jazz stardom with music that speaks of the joys of being alive

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.

• Did you catch this gig – or any other recently? Tell us about it using #Iwasthere

Contributor

John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Ahmad Jamal – review

This gig fizzed with the great jazz pianist's restless musical intelligence, writes John Fordham

John Fordham

12, Feb, 2013 @5:38 PM

Article image
Ahmad Jamal: Saturday Morning – review

The octogenarian American pianist's followup to last year's Blue Moon is just as fresh, writes John Fordham

John Fordham

26, Sep, 2013 @9:49 PM

Article image
Ahmad Jamal, Barbican, London

Barbican, London

John L Walters

11, May, 2005 @10:41 AM

Ahmad Jamal: Blue Moon – review
This session combining eloquent originals with dazzling makeovers of American standards looks set to be a Jamal classic, writes John Fordham

John Fordham

02, Feb, 2012 @10:33 PM

Ahmad Jamal: Blue Moon – review
Ahmad Jamal's impressionist compositions exude an exquisite calm, writes Dave Gelly

Dave Gelly

05, Feb, 2012 @12:04 AM

Ahmad Jamal: Saturday Morning – review
Now 83, jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal is as brilliantly unpredictable as ever, writes Dave Gelly

Dave Gelly

26, Oct, 2013 @11:05 PM

Article image
CD: Ahmad Jamal, After Fajr

(Dreyfus)

John Fordham

22, Jul, 2005 @1:24 AM

Article image
CD: Ahmad Jamal: In Search Of

(Dreyfus)

John Fordham

13, Jun, 2003 @10:48 PM

Article image
Ahmad Jamal: Live in Marciac 2014 review – warm, charming live album
Ahmad Jamal and his band display an effortless grasp of group dynamics on this live album recorded in France in 2014

John Fordham

09, Jul, 2015 @5:30 PM

Article image
Ahmad Jamal: 'After a time you discover the Mozart in you'

At 82, the veteran jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal can look back on a lifetime of achievement. But, he says, his voyage of discovery is far from over

John Fordham

01, Feb, 2013 @5:00 AM