Florida-born, Philadelphia-dwelling Khan Jamal has too often found favor and fame as part of someone else’s show: Byard Lancaster’s Cosmic Forces in the late ’60s, the Sounds of Liberation collective with Monette Sudler in the early ’70s, and Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society in the ’80s, with stops in free ensembles led by Billy Bang and Sunny Murray in between. But his fluid playing skills, often avant-garde funk-inspired rhythms, and dedication to spiritualized soul make him a lion of the vibraphone and the marimba.
Although Jamal (now 74) hasn’t put out an album since 2009, new listeners now have an excellent chance to fall in love with him via the re-release of 1984’s smoothly groovy, spacious, forever out-of-print Infinity. Joined by old friend/windsman Lancaster, bassist Reggie Curry, pianist Bernard Sammul, percussionist Omar Hill, and drummers Dwight James and Murray, Jamal recorded this placid project in Philly’s suburbs for the tiny Jambrio label.
While the Sammul-penned “The Angry Young Man” percolates the hardest and roams the furthest into postbop territory, the rest of Infinity is a stone soul picnic, filled with elegant flute and happily dancing piano lines on tracks like Jamal’s “Nubian Queen” and the aptly named “Lovely Afternoon.” Throughout these pastoral moments, Jamal’s twinkly marimba and spine-tingling vibraphone provide dashing counterbalance as well as lush punctuation. On the more dramatic and ever-so-slightly swinging “The Known Unknown,” Jamal takes several dark leads and walks a few long and frantic miles besides Sammul’s stormy, McCoy Tyner-esque keys, expressing what feels like confusion, an off-kilter vibe or an off-beat prayer. The title track goes one step farther, with softly askew alto sax squiggles from Lancaster, lightly frenzied rolls from Murray, and free harmonica player Clifton Burton rolling low alongside Hill’s insistent conga line and Jamal’s humming vibes.
Kudos to London’s Jazz Room Records for finding this missing, low-key masterpiece.