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On The Corner Masthead

Ahmad Jamal In 5 Songs

March 5, 2018 | by Ross Eustis

Album artwork from "Ahmad Jamal '73"

On the heels of his new Jazz Village release Marseille, 87-year-old jazz legend Ahmad Jamal performs at the 36th Annual San Francisco after a three-year break on June 6. In recognition of Jamal's lifetime of music, we look back at five recordings that define his sound and impact on jazz.

1. "Ahmad's Blues"

Representative of Jamal's early piano-guitar-bass lineup (which he called "The Three Strings"), "Ahmad's Blues" is the title track of the pianist's debut album released in 1951 on the Okeh label. The song would become one of the pianist's signature originals.

2. "Poinciana"

Based on a Cuban folk tune, "La Canción Del Árbol" ("The Song of the Tree"), "Poinciana" is Jamal's hit. The pianist recorded the song many times throughout his career, but nothing tops the classic 1958 live version off At the Pershing: But Not for Me. The dates also marked a dramatic change in Jamal's sound, with drummer Vernel Fournier replacing guitarist Ray Crawford (and Israel Crosby still on bass). Riding the popularity of "Poinciana," At the Pershing: But Not for Me quickly rose to #1 on the Billboard Magazine album charts, where it stayed for 107 weeks!

3. "I Love Music"

After the success of At the Pershing: But Not for Me and a several year hiatus from performing, Jamal began touring and recording again in the mid-60s, releasing a number of albums on Argo Records, Cadet Records, and later iconic jazz label Impulse! Records, which put out 1970's The Awakening. Although not a hit at the time, this album aged extremely well over time, in large part due to rapper Nas sampling a piano line from "I Love Music" (appears roughly at 4:50) for his 1994 single off Illmatic, "The World Is Yours," widely considered among the top 10 hip hop songs of all time. Associated Press estimates that roughly 40 rap songs feature an Ahmad Jamal sample.

4. "Manhattan Reflections" & "Extensions"

The same lineup in The Awakening (Jamil Nasser on bass, Frank Gant on drums) was filmed performing in an episode of Jazz Session in France in 1971, with dynamic, extended performances of "Manhattan Reflections" (Tranquility, 1968) and "Extension" (Extensions, 1965). The episode remains some of the best live footage of Jamal from this era, with his band's signature interplay, use of space, dynamics and vamps in full display. Jamal is in top form as well, and even throws some Bach into his solo around 4:11.

5. "Marseille (feat. Abd Al Malik)"

After a three-year break, an 87-year-old Jamal returned in 2017 with a new Jazz Village release Marseille, featuring James Cammack on bass, Herlin Riley on drums, Manolo Badrena on percussion, and vocalist Abd Al Malik adding spoken word to the title track. The new group (minus Abd Al Malik) headline the 36th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival on June 6.