Having sadly passed away recently at the age of 92, Ahmad Jamal was a bestseller in his day but, in comparison to contemporaries like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, is now a lesser recognised giant of the burgeoning 1950s and ‘60s Jazz scene in the public consciousness.
Highly respected by his peers and wide audiences, we look at his most widely recognised album, At the Pershing: But Not For Me as this month’s classic album. Recorded on January 16, 1958 at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago, IL this live album, complete with audience ambience and applause, features 8 tracks selected by Jamal from several recorded across multiple sets that evening and night.
Playing as a trio with Jamal, leading on piano, were bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier. Both were in demand players, while Jamal himself had his first shot at recording thanks to the legendary John Hammond, before going on to sign a deal with Chess Records, a label more closely associated with Chicago Blues.
At the Pershing… was an immediate success and would go on to spend over a hundred weeks on the Billboard album charts. Yet, this hugely popular album has not remained en vogue. Completely ill-fitting with the BeBop scene of the time, At the Pershing… also failed to fully tie in to the on-going Cool Jazz scene that would spawn Dave Brubeck’s classic Time Out a year later.
Instead, Jamal’s album was, and has continued to be, oft-considered by critics as Cocktail Jazz. Light, melodic and eschewing the fast-tempos and frenetic shifts of BeBop, Jamal’s playing also shied away from the Modal Jazz then popular. Instead, Jamal’s playing favoured a careful use of space with considered pacing where shifting rhythms were used to build anticipation and provide relief, signalling and signposting throughout.
A master with a delicate touch, Jamal’s extended vamps brought him many admirers including Miles Davis who would send his players to watch Jamal to learn of his use of space and who Jamal has said came to watch his trio perform during their residency at The Pershing Hotel. The album opens with But Not For Me, a track written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1930 musical Girl Crazy.
Already recorded by a who’s who of top performers including Judy Garland for the film version of Girl Crazy, Bing Corsby, Miles Davis, Chet Baker it would soon go on to be recorded by Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, and John Coltrane. As popular a song as there was at the time, Jamal’s trio begin boldly with an interpretation that strips the song back to the bones, allowing Jamal the space to weave right-hand lines around a wandering bass groove before returning to the main melody in hints and flourishes rather than as centrepiece.
From there Jamal blasts through the pacey The Surrey with the Fringe on Top from Oklahoma!, with a running bass groove, flighty piano, and solid bass drum kick accentuating the end of each line. The track would later be picked up first by Miles Davis and then others, becoming somewhat of a Jazz standard when previously it had been exclusively a show tune.
Moonlight in Vermont follows, made most famous by Frank Sinatra on Come Fly With Me and also by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on Ella and Louis. Deconstructed and filled with adventure, Jamal’s version retains the glittering air of the others but also introduces a new sense of weight, grounding the piece and adding a discreet depth and curiosity to the work.
Despite drawing on popular material as his source, something that clearly did At The Pershing… no commercial harm, Jamal’s album retains a complexity that is several steps above the common sense idea of Cocktail Jazz. While many in that style are interchangeable, if you like one then you’ll like them all, there is a virtuosity to Jamal’s playing that sets him apart. Nowhere is this more true than on Poinciana, a Nat Simon and Buddy Bernier track from 1936 that was recorded by Bing Crosby, among others, before Jamal made it his own with At The Pershing….
Featuring a slow build, looping piano intro, the track slowly evolves line by line while the drums and bass maintain a slow, steady swinging groove. Around a third of the way in, things pick up in intensity with a catchy phrase that demands attention before descending chords split the song in two and Jamal begins inserting new melodic lines. Leaving space for drums and bass to briefly take over, Jamal ratchets the track up further until it becomes a nascent dance track.
A masterclass in pacing, rhythm, and imagination, Poinciana would go on to be a prime feature of Jamal’s live sets for the rest of his life as he found new ways to improvise on the rich foundation he laid at The Pershing Hotel. Focusing on a clear, delicate touch on the piano, a minimalist sense of interpretation, and a rhythm section that was tight, grooving and unobtrusive, the Ahmed Jamal Trio created a sound that was accessible yet erudite. While greats like Miles Davis valued Jamal’s discipline and singular sense of space, audiences appreciated his lean towards popular tunes and restraint.
While lounge Jazz, cocktail music and the like have acquired a bad reputation thanks to poor players and lack of consideration, that Ahmed Jamal Trio have become associated with such concerns is a great disservice to their talent and musicality. At the Pershin… finds Jamal, in particular, at the height of his game, interpreting the American songbook in innovative ways that would influence some of the greatest names in Jazz, not least the creation of Davis’ Kind of Blue the following year, featuring Bill Evans on piano.
Oft-overlooked, At the Pershing: But Not For Me is a prime example of an album that flourished in its time and is well deserving of an enhanced spotlight once again. While the style may not initially appear to appeal to some, the playing on this album is sure to show that, as with so much music, it is more than a genre, style or series of generalisations and instead is something worthy of consideration in its own right.