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Ahmad Jamal - Symphony Center, Chicago, 12/10/2018

  by Lisa Torem

published: 27 / 11 / 2018

Ahmad Jamal - Symphony Center, Chicago, 12/10/2018


Lisa Torem enjoys watching jazz legend Ahmad Jamal and his trio play a sparkling set at Chicago’s Symphony Center

Ahmad Jamal's "At the Pershing: But Not for Me" was recorded six decades ago in this beloved pianist's 'second home' of Chicago, and local fans with elephant memories will never forgot that fact. Mr Jamal spent more than a decade in the Windy City beginning in the late 1940s, and that stay definitely made its mark and won him a cadre of lifetime fans. People of all ages were in attendance at this show, even when the performer himself's age now almost matches the number of keys on Chicago Symphony Center's grand piano. But this writer has no technical reason to bring the age card up: Ahmad Jamal's playing is, remarkably, as fresh and skilful as ever. And playful? He stood on the stage for a hushed moment before sitting down on the bench, as if to wait for his first, proper round of applause. There was a sly element of suspense in his vibrant set list, which began with the misty 'Autumn Rain', a collage of neat seconds and thirds and scintillating runs ("A composition I wrote some time ago..."). Spanning the length of the piano, he made no bones about sprinkling mysterious atonal passages at will, which percussionist Manolo Badrena, drummer Herlin Riley and bassist James Cammack underscored with a veil of light percussion and whispering bass. The striking, subtle melody snuck its way back in after a few moments of serious cacophony, some dense block chords and even a few tasty blues notes. When he summoned his trio, the piece really percolated before rolling back to a full simmer. 'My Latin' was delightfully subtle. It began with a full-on upright bass introduction and light conga. Mr. Jamal tickled a few notes intermittently, leaving lots of alluring white space and a sense of anticipation. He echoed Mr. Cammack's bass line. Then the trio, at the pianist's beck and call, waited to see if or when their man would explode into a rhythmic tirade: Mr. Jamal seems to delight in doing the unexpected. Keeping a comedic, buzz-like motion with the left, he concentrated on the bright right, yielding a descending, fugue-like passage. But when he did finally elect to crescendo, he swung with the force of an anvil. Led by light tambourine and thrashing drum, the next melody took its sweet time surfacing from under the fiery beat. There was little foreshadowing, but when it appeared, old favorite 'Blue Moon' inspired sighs of happiness. One of his signature tunes, 'Poinciana' triggered immediate roars of gratitude, perhaps because so many fans remembered its freshness from the Pershing album, or perhaps simply because of its infectious pulse. As an added treat, Mr. Jamal referenced other golden standards in between measures. His all-around virtuosity was truly evident in 'Swahili Land', a creative composition featuring bold stops and starts. Cole Porter's 'I've Got You Under My Skin' had a dreamy, intimate lounge feel. 'Call Me', even more so, as the trio afforded their maestro fuller reign. Part of the Friday night excitement also stemmed from watching Mr. Jamal interact with his players. Every so often, he would glance at the trio and casually extend an open palm, as if he had spontaneously thought about needing a solo right then and there. The audience showed great enthusiasm when his players responded in kind with a thrashing of the skins, a muted horn or an extended upright bass line. The best part was that the maestro not only kept the audience guessing, he kept his players on edge as well, albeit a comical edge. They were having as good a time as their seasoned leader. In a flash, the 90-minute concert ended. The house rose to their feet and got what they wanted, in the form of two smashing encores: 'But Not for Me' swung in delightfully different time, and the closer, Mr. Jamal confessed, was one of his very favourites, 'This is The Life', from the musical Golden Boy. Shades of dark, light, crazy and sane emanated from his fingertips. Fielding three standing ovations, after saying, 'I love you', turning toward each section of the hall and up to the balcony and then pausing one more time, the legend left the stage. Ahmad Jamal is celebrating 60 years of success and he has handled his fame very well. After the concert, fans raced to the merch table. All copies of 'Marseilles', the newest release, were already gone and only one autographed copy of sheet music still remained. The people of Chicago know a legend when they see one.

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Ahmad Jamal - Symphony Center, Chicago, 12/10/2018

Ahmad Jamal - Symphony Center, Chicago, 12/10/2018

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