Ahmad Jamal is the Benjamin Button of jazz piano. Most players age into understatement and economy; Jamal has aged out of it. But that’s a generalization. His music was more nuanced than that when he recorded “Poinciana” in 1958, and it remains so in 2017, as Marseille seems determined to demonstrate.
In fact, this record’s version of “Autumn Leaves” is closely related to Jamal’s most acclaimed early work. It largely comprises restrained single-note lines from the pianist as well as generous use of space and fluctuating dynamics. It’s the rhythm section (longtime associates James Cammack on bass, Herlin Riley on drums and percussionist Manolo Badrena) that busies up the tune, with stabbing Latin rhythms reminiscent of Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco.” But don’t look for that performance to establish a pattern. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Marseille’s one other standard against six originals, evinces much more aggression. This time it’s Jamal who stabs at the keys, accenting his rubato melody rendition with clanging, slightly dissonant chords.
These two represent the album’s poles. The surrounding originals split the difference in various combinations. “Pots en Verre” and “Baalbeck” adopt strident percussion and ringing, off-kilter chords, adding in some Tatum-esque piano flourishes while also building a lyrical foundation and putting spaces in unexpected places. The ballad “I Came to See You” minimizes the bass and drums (though Badrena makes expansive use of chimes and shakers), instead relying on piano lushness.
As for the title track, it comes in three varieties: first an instrumental march, second a sexy ballad with a spoken-word vocal in French (courtesy of Abd Al Malik), and third a Latin-inflected purr, sung by Mina Agossi in French and English. All are beautiful, depicting a jazz titan who still emphasizes his uniqueness—now with cubism instead of minimalism. Maybe Ahmad Jamal isn’t Benjamin Button, but Picasso.