Since the 1950s, Ahmad Jamal has been coaxing jazz standards onto the dance floor. Taking his time, noting a song’s curves and the rhythm of its step, he builds a simple, pulsing phrase in the left hand with all the circular motion of a swaying hip. Then he flips the cadence of the tune’s original melody and fits it into the depths of his own groove.
This was his method on famous renditions of “Misty” and “Poinciana,” and on Jamal’s newest release, Blue Moon: The New York Session, he stretches the approach. Like modern-day disciple Robert Glasper, he lets vamps undulate and linger, with climaxes arriving in such intuitive crests that bathos isn’t a risk. A 10-minute rendition of “Blue Moon” revolves around a signature left-handed pattern, with the melody only appearing after an expansive haze has overtaken the listener (and even then, only in snatches and shards). “Woody ‘n You,” though half the duration, employs the same tack, also to hypnotic effect. Jamal believes in the natural power of perpetual invention to unleash Dionysian bliss, so long as you give things some oxygen and some time. He invests trust and compassion in his band-bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena-which functions as a drum circle as much as a straight-ahead combo.
It is Jamal’s percussiveness that led Stanley Crouch to assert that “no single artist after [Charlie Parker] has been more important to the development of fresh form in jazz than Ahmad Jamal.” But in recent years, Jamal’s honed a capacity for incisive filigree in his rubato playing. On the original “I Remember Italy,” a motivic ballad, he washes the keyboard in flourishes, letting each individual note play a supporting role-not a narrative one-in guiding us to the piece’s warm heart.