Having been forced to cancel a March gig at the Jazz Bakery due to illness, Ahmad Jamal appeared there as promised last week — and he was greeted by an unusually large, unusually demonstrative audience for a Tuesday night. Evidently they rightly sense something special about this jazz original from Pittsburgh, who at 70 continues to go his own way defiantly with hardly any concessions to the usual piano-playing role models — even while working within the acoustic jazz mainstream tradition.
His playing was full of oddly spaced bursts of power and lyrical interludes, with busy light-fingered runs and tremelos giving way to long silences. And even within his own sound world, Jamal remains unpredictable; while he likes to catch a repetitive groove and run with it, there was little of that kind of activity Tuesday.
Furthermore, Jamal’s Steinway grand piano was placed on the right half of the stage and the drum kit was perched on the left side, instead of the normal piano-left, drums-right setup. True, the pianist gives up direct eye contact with his sidemen in this setting, but that wasn’t a problem here, for bassist James Cammack — who’s been with Jamal for 18 years –and drummer James Johnson were thoroughly prepared for Jamal’s trademark shifts in dynamics and intricate structures. In addition, at this angle, more people in the audience could see Jamal’s fingers in action, and even the sound balance seemed better than usual for this room.
Rather than dip into the encyclopedia of standards in his opening set, Jamal preferred to stick mainly with originals and not-too-well-known pieces from fellow pianists like Monty Alexander and Horace Silver. If any one tune could define the Jamal approach on this night, it was his own composition “Kaleidoscope,” which took off in a romping, stomping manner only to pass through several contrasting sections.
Ultimately, Jamal gave his audience something familiar to latch onto; after an exquisitely swinging transition at the lowest possible volume got the crowd excited, he wheeled easily into the distinctive rhythm of his famous treatment of “Poinciana.” Though he’s played this arrangement a jillion times since introducing it back in the ’50s, he can still surprise you with some of his new twists on the tune.