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Story and photos by Matt SchwenkeCited as an influence by such noteworthy, jazz musicians as Miles Davis and Jack DeJohnette, Ahmad Jamal found respect for his rhythmic and melodic skills early on when he recorded his first album in 1951, and now more than a half-century later, the innovative pianist is as distinctively vocal as ever, though never really reaching mainstream popularity.
Jamal's performance at the Pabst revealed some his most popular works-- Gershwin's "But Not For Me," which put Jamal on the pop charts in the '50s, and his own "Poinciana," which was featured in the Clint Eastwood film The Bridges of Madison County and which Jamal proudly proclaimed is "highly plagiarized"-- and evidence the 76-year-old still had the fist-pounding energy of a 20-something behind the keys was found early in the show and throughout the entire evening.
Swelling from the mere fluttering of keys to an almost cathartic release, Jamal's journey through Cole Porter's "I Love Paris" and his own "Acorn" produced some of the most powdery soft moments, while Jamal's "After Fajr" and set-ending "Swahililand" delivered some of the most mysterious and abrasive.
The trio, featuring the looming presence of drummer Idris Muhammad and smooth attack of bassist James Commack, was packed together closely on stage and was fluidly cohesive. With Jamal calling out changes with gestures or guttural yells and egging his bandmates on during their solos, the performance was surprising, fresh and masterfully dynamic.
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