Ahmad Jamal

Poinciana Revisited/Freeflight

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This collection is evidence that there really are bargains on the compact disc market. Both albums presented here, Ahmad Jamal at the Top: Poinciana Revisited and Freeflight, offer excellent portraits of the great pianist in transition at the end of the '60s and beginning of the '70s. Both feature Jamal's great rhythm section of bassist Jamil Sulieman Nasser and drummer Frank Grant. The first date was recorded in in 1969 at the Top of the Village Gate in New York City. Its reveals Jamal playing in a more driving, percussive style, though he keeps his utterly elegant chord voicings intact. Check the opening reading of Rodgers & Hart's "Have You Met Miss Jones," played as a slippery, complex, hard bop tune with some modal and Latin elements added. The version of "Poinciana" here is quicker, deeper in the rhythmic cut. The reading of Tony Hatch's "Call Me," with an Afro-Cuban rhythmic frame and a very fast tempo, reinvents the pop song. "Theme from Valley of the Dolls" begins almost impressionistically before giving way to gorgeous, slowly and precisely played balladry, in which the pianist extends every line until it bleeds into the next. The set ends with a completely re-visioned "How Insensitive," by Antonio Carlos Jobim, that employs elements of montuno and even rumba in its samba frame. Freeflight, recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1971, is just as satisfying, though Jamal plays a Fender Rhodes piano as well as his grand. Commencing with a charging rendition of McCoy Tyner's "Effendi," Jamal allows the Rhodes' slightly distorted tone to add space and texture -- creating space where there is, in fact, very little. Nasser's basslines are a sprint throughout and they lead Jamal to explore the range of the electric keyboard's harmonic possibilities. His reading of Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," played on the grand piano, highlights the more subtle elements in the composer's lyric palette and finds a second, more disguised one at the tune's heart. The dynamics in the arrangement showcase Jamal's ability to extract fully-voiced chords from minimal elements. The 11-and-a-half-minute rendition of "Poinciana" here stands in sharp contrast to the previous one because of its extended, intricate, sweet lyricism that takes its time before giving way to the midtempo Latin rhythmic figure, as his light-fingered ostinati pop against the rhythm section's skittering strut. Together, these two dates make for a fine portrait of Jamal's ability to reinvent his approach to jazz during a particularly turbulent era, without sacrificing his personality.

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