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Ahmad Jamal: Live in Marciac: August 5, 2014

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Recorded at Jazz in Marciac, one of the music’s signal European venues, pianist-composer Ahmad Jamal’s latest live offering, a CD/DVD package, is an effervescent feast. Jamal may be 85, but this set’s energy and creative range suggest that his ability to bend time to his will extends far beyond the piano.

Joined by bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena, Jamal offers a program, consisting mostly of original compositions, that exudes fluency and verve. “Sunday Afternoon” provides one of Jamal’s catchiest hooks and a strutting introductory solo from Veal. “Dynamo” pits the pianist in a shimmering, lightning-fast race with Riley and Badrena; Jamal deploys pounding block chords and glittery arpeggios while the drummer works every inch of the skins to create an urgent, unfaltering tempo.

The impressionistic, near-fragmentary structure of “The Gypsy” offhandedly evokes French classical traditions, and a pair of tracks pays homage to fellow pianist and composer Horace Silver, who died two months before this performance was recorded. “Silver,” a gritty-yet-sophisticated Jamal original, finds the pianist tackling an ever-shifting melody with some of his most robustly insistent playing. The band also takes on the lightly exotic Silver composition “Strollin’,” Badrena’s whimsical chimes and Veal’s buoyant bridge building a vivid sense of celebration. Jamal further illustrates his skills as a melodic deconstructionist on “All of You” and “Blue Moon,” breaking the well-worn standards into glistening bits without betraying their spirits.

The accompanying DVD of the concert makes the musicians’ joy in collaboration doubly palpable. Jamal’s decades of expertise are evident as he guides his instrumentalists with the point of a finger, and it’s marvelous to witness everyone’s surprise when Badrena, on “The Gypsy,” throws in a bluesy vocal exclamation enhanced by a fanfare from a handheld electronic gizmo. The disc also includes a performance not featured on the CD, a rendition of Jamal’s “Morning Mist” that is largely a solo showcase for Veal. The bassist thwacks at his strings with such force you fear he may snap off a finger, but the persuasive results evolve into a tenderly evocative unison statement from the quartet. The encore, “Autumn Rain,” finds Riley laying down a funky-as-you-want-it backbeat, his tongue-in-cheek smirk underlining the seeming ease with which he and his bandmates conjure such glorious sounds. These two discs combine to form an eminently worthy addition to the live discography of one of jazz’s undisputed masters.

Read Ashley Kahn’s in-depth profile of Ahmad Jamal.

Originally Published