Ahmad Jamal: At 81, still King of the Keyboard and headed for Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre

Ahmad Jamal Comes to the Colonial Theatre on March 31, 2012.

Ahmad Jamal has survived longer than almost any other jazz artist, and is playing better than ever. His breezy style crosses over to embrace non-jazz audiences as well. How do you explain it?

“Consistent excellence,” says Ken Franckling in Jazz Notes. “That’s the simplistic accolade for pianist Ahmad Jamal’s music-making. He sustains that level of creativity and inventiveness in every format. At age 81, he’s got a refreshed band and a new recording. Blue Moon explores classic music from American film and Broadway from the 1940s through the 1960s, adding three originals and a fresh take on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody’n You.” His band here includes bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena. This was Jamal’s first recording of the gorgeous title track, which originated in the 1934 film “Hollywood Party” and was popularized by Billie Holiday, Elvis and Mel Torme. Jamal’s version ought to stand without peer for many fans in the way that he has owned “Poinciana” for decades. This is classic Jamal. Dig it.”

And as it turns out, Ahmad Jamal is heading to Pittsfield, where he will be celebrating the release of his newest CD, Blue Moon, at The Colonial Theatre on March 31 at 8pm.

Jamal continues to travel the world, as he has for well over the last four decades. Noted for his outstanding technical command and identifiable sound as a piano stylist, Mr. Jamal considers his ensemble “an orchestra.” Jamal not only achieves a unified sound, but subtly inserts independent roles for the bass and drums.

From a technical standpoint, the hallmarks of Jamal’s style are rhythmic innovations, colorful harmonic perceptions, especially left hand harmonic and melodic figures, plus parallel and contrary motion lines in and out of chordal substitutions and alterations and pedal point ostinato interludes in tasteful dynamics. He also incorporates a unique sense of space in his music, and his musical concepts are exciting without being loud in volume. Augmented by a selection of unusual standards and his own compositions, Jamal notably impressed and influenced, among others, trumpeter Miles Davis.

But Jamal modestly says the stars of jazz are not on stage, they are up in the heavens. In the video we offer here he remembers Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and the legacy they left the world.

In 1994, Jamal himself received the American Jazz Masters fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts. That same year he was named a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University, where he performed commissioned works with the Assai String Quartet. In 2007 the French Government inducted Mr. Jamal into the prestigious Order of the Arts and Letters by French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, naming him Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In December of 2011 Mr. Jamal was awarded with DownBeat’s 76th Reader’s Poll Hall of Fame.

Mr. Jamal’s previous recording A Quiet Time (Dreyfus Records), released in January 2010, was the number #1 CD on jazz radio for the year 2010 and continues to soar. Also this year the French Jazz Academy has voted “The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions 1956-1962” released by Mosaïc as the “Best reissue of the year with outstanding research work.” His music remains, youthful, fresh, imaginative and always influential.

Tickets to March 31 Ahmad Jamal performance at 8:00 pm are $15–$50. Tickets may be purchased in person at The Colonial Theatre Ticket Office at 111 South Street Pittsfield, MA 01201 or by calling (413) 997-4444 or online at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org. The Ticket Office is open Monday-Friday 10am–5pm, Saturdays 10am–2pm or on any performance day from 10am until intermission.

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