Jazz is having quite the moment. Its rather extensive contemporary refurbishment, spearheaded by a new generation of jazz musicians based in Los Angeles like Kamasi Washington and Cameron Graves, is connecting the music with younger audiences who might have previously found traditional jazz incongruous with the modern landscape defined by computerized production.
Ahmad Jamal, whose career goes back to 1951, somehow manages to fit right into the shifting tide with his new release Marseille, the name of which functions as a homage to the city in the south of France. The country has been fervent in its support of his work, and home to the album’s recording sessions. Given that Jamal’s career has spanned numerous decades taken by ephemeral cultural fads exercising their persuasive authority over the traditional pillars of jazz music, his ability to continue to adapt his trademark style as a pianist, which shines through on Marseille, is awe-inspiring.
Jamal’s distinguishing skill has always been his ability to blend space and fluid improvisational lines to create nuanced recordings that challenge what is necessary and what is not. On Marseille, not only does Jamal adeptly interpose this style into moments of tension, but also into succeeding moments of distinct climactic beauty that soothe the listener into a joyful reverie.
The title song, which manifests in three different versions, perfectly encapsulates Jamal’s dynamism. The first version, an instrumental with a march-like drum beat, oscillates between haunting arpeggios and powerfully dramatic chordal progressions. Later, the second version operates a space-inflated vamp underneath a punctuated spoken-word performance from French rapper Abd Al-Malik. The third version, which features vocalist Mina Agossi, is a love song framed by a sparser instrumental backdrop and bound by the fleeting joy and struggle of a longing, distant love.
Characteristic of Jamal's previous work, there are distinctive moments featuring latin percussive influence, as in “Pots en Verre” and “Autumn Leaves,” not only demonstrating Jamal’s hold on the qualities of traditional jazz music, but also exhibiting his impressive ability to adopt, genuinely transform, and recreate jazz standards.
Marseille features a cache of unexpected motifs and arrangements, as two tracks present a rather funky counterpoint to the rest of the record. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Jamal’s altogether passionate and innovative take on the often-covered spiritual, is upbeat and spontaneous, featuring a subtle, yet catchy hook and a groove that settles nicely within the interaction between the marching bass line and polyrhythmic drums. In addition, “Baalbeck” reveals a movie-score like impulsive tension with a funky call and response between the piano, bass (James Cammack), drums (Herlin Riley), and percussion (Manolo Badrena), again showcasing the quartet's mastery of a wide-range of technique and style.
Marseille is a touching and polished work, complicated in its emotions, persistent in its spring, and unmistakably loose. These qualities open up space for the musicians to showcase their skills. Marseille confirms that Jamal is still in full form at the age of 86.
Our favorite songs are "Marseille (feat. Abd Al-Malik)", "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "Pots en Verre," and "Baalbeck."
The LP is available on Amazon and streaming services. Listen to the full album above, courtesy of Spotify.
For more, check out Ahmad Jamal's Zumic page.