If you ever needed a comprehensive introduction to the appeal of Ahmad Jamal’s straight bop work, the two volumes of Emerald City Nights may just do the trick. The dual two-disc sets (out on both CD and vinyl LP) come from tapes—found by jazz tape detective Zev Feldman—that capture the piano maestro across four years of performances at Seattle’s Penthouse club with four different bands. The variation across the two albums shows Jamal’s ever-evolving sense of performance and band direction across those years.
1963-1964 sees Jamal and his trios in animated, pull-out-all-the-stops form. On “Minor Adjustments” you can almost hear the force that bassist Richard Evans puts into each note as the band swings hard but keeps the pace at mid-tempo, letting the music’s attack hit the ears. Later, on “Squatty Roo,” the band is flying so hard they seem to want to launch themselves out of the club. Evans cheekily quotes “Yankee Doodle” as Jamal judiciously picks out phrases. Then the pianist rises with the band’s dynamic, punching out towering chords as drummer Chuck Lampkin hammers out licks on his kit. It may seem like a crescendo, but the trio carries the energy forward like a steam train at top speed.
On the other hand, 1965-1966 emphasizes more of the recognizable standards that helped establish Jamal’s credentials. The album opens with a lovely take on “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”: Jamal begins with a reharmonized intro, then the band strolls through the melody like it was a balmy Sunday. The pace quickens to a sprint a few minutes in, but the piano never rises above a conversational tone, balancing—with bassist Jamil Nasser and Lampkin—a mood that’s energetic but relaxed. This is matched by Jamal, Nasser and Vernel Fournier on “Like Someone in Love”; the contrast between Jamal’s quietude on the keys and the band’s bristling cadence creates an enthralling bed of sound to sink into.
There’s a beautiful performance of “Poinciana” on 1965-1966—there had to be lest the Jamal devotees riot—but one of the greatest gems here is a version of “Feelin’ Good” from March 25, 1965. Nina Simone’s definitive rendition, with swaggering horns and cinematic strings, wouldn’t be released for another three months. Jamal’s take, almost unrecognizable at first, leads in with a slow-midtempo march beat by Nasser and Lampkin. But Jamal plays around, repeating the melody attached to the phrase “And this old world is a new world / And a bold world” as a kind of mantra. After building to a mighty peak, the band does a natural fadeout, leaving you wanting more. Luckily, there are 18 other tracks to satisfy the craving.