At the age of 89, pianist Ahmad Jamal has released his first solo album. Let that sink in: Jamal, who started recording in 1951 and supposedly influenced Miles Davis, took nearly 70 years to put out his first work of solo material. And Ballades is not even fully solo; three of the 10 tunes are duets with bassist James Cammack.
This is a wonderful, classy record. Jamal’s sparse, airy playing shimmers from end to end. His treatment of 10 ballads, many of which he has recorded before, is expressive and thoughtful. He sometimes employs vamps to anchor a piece—note the simple ones he applies to “Because I Love You” (which he apparently composed while recording it), “Spring Is Here,” and “Emily”—while adorning the riffs with economical flourishes. He never shows off. He doesn’t dazzle with head-spinning flights. Instead he wows with his harmonic ideas, unique phrasing, and unexpected spaces.
Jamal, of course, is associated with one of the most recognizable songs in jazz: “Poinciana,” which he first recorded with his trio in 1958. That bouncing, upbeat Latin take is the gold-standard version. On Ballades he completely reinterprets it, slowing it down, adding a twisting intro that camouflages the theme until he gradually reveals it. Many pianists have done “Poinciana” in the past 61 years, but Jamal has always owned it, and he owns it again here. So too does he stake his claim on “What’s New,” giving the well-worn ballad a tender reading in the album’s high point. What’s new? We finally have a solo album from Ahmad Jamal. Better late than never.
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