82-year-old Ahmad Jamal is an undisputed master of the piano. His use of space and repetition hold a unique place in a genre that prizes dexterity and note count.On Saturday night, before a disappointingly spacious crowd (why were those choir seats empty in front and full in the back?), Jamal led his quartet through a brief set of standards that highlighted his mastery of the 88 keys of ebony and ivory.
In the center of Segerstrom's elegant concert hall, Jamal set up alongside upright bassistReginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Bedrena. As Jamal approached the piano he started playing, not even waiting to sit down while his band was already seated and ready to go. They launched quickly into a steady backbeat with Jamal setting the tone over his churning band.
It must be a challenge to play alongside Jamal. He constantly conducts from the piano, pointing at band members for solos while frequently allowing the unit to ring without any solos. Jamal has a confidence in open spaces that would terrify most younger musicians but in Jamal's hands patience is rewarded. The quartet held a cohesive sound that never let up on the groove, breathing new life into standards like "Blue Moon" and "Like Someone in Love." The band is spooky good at following Jamal's whims, jutting left than right like a flock of birds.
Around 8:45 the band stood up as a unit and bowed, drawing a scattered standing ovation. Was this intermission? Nope, apparently just a chance for the band to stretch together at the front of the stage. They returned to their instruments and proceeded to play a couple more tunes including Jamal's 1958 hit, "Poinciana."
Not a lot of jazz musicians play their hits (jazz musicians have hits?). The genre gives most musicians permission to play whatever the hell they want. Although Jamal is not much of a talker from the stage (when he named his band members, his voice was indecipherable), he does frequently grant the audience a taste of the past. That unmistakable lilt of "Poinciana" popped from Riley's mallets and the audience was applauding before Jamal struck a note.
I wonder if Jamal has been playing the song consistently for the last 54 years or if he made peace with it at a certain point. The band worked through an extended version of the song with Jamal ringing low end clusters and high repetitious phrases as Bedrena kept a steady pulse on a tambourine before they closed with a coy trill.
And that was it. The band stood up and bowed, the audience stood up and clapped. The house lights turned on at 9'15 and what felt like an intermission was actually the end. The audience, barely surfacing from a post-Thanksgiving haze seemed to be just getting into things when it was all over. Last month, Pat Metheny played for twice as long and I enjoyed it half as much. Oh well. In classic showbiz style, Jamal left the audience wanting more.
Critical Bias: I have heard Ahmad Jamal play twice before in the last ten years. Both times he played "Poinciana."
The Crowd: Respectfully attentive but disappointingly spacious.
Overheard:"I'm so glad he played that song."
Random Notebook Dump:The night played out more as a club gig than a concert hall gig. I guess at the age of 82 you can play for however long you like.