Fifty years ago, when Ahmad Jamal had hit albums (Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing/But Not for Me made it to No. 3 in Billboard), jazz critics of course dismissed him as a cocktail pianist and a sellout. It took many years for the importance of certain Jamal contributions—his orchestral concept of small ensemble form, his ideas about space and dynamics—to be widely understood. Jamal is still going strong at 77. It’s Magic is his 10th U.S. release on the French Dreyfus label. It adds percussionist Manolo Badrena to Jamal’s longstanding rhythm section of bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad.
Jamal has always been the most mannered of pianists. His style is inseparable from his mannerisms, and they are ubiquitous here: the signature vamps, the riffs, the harmonic substitutions, the tag endings. Jamal’s devices sound more self-conscious now. (Given enough time, all innovations become clichés.) Some of the originals, like “Dynamo,” are essentially compilations of his pet gestures. On “Wild Is the Wind,” Jamal’s attempts at tension-and-release lack the tension—probably because, at this late date, we know they are coming.
Yet Jamal’s single greatest gift is his charm. Long ago it enabled him to break into pop culture. It still enables him to make “The Way You Look Tonight” completely seductive, simply by reassigning spaces to create revelations of feeling.