Sounds of the 70s

Two great new jazz albums from aging pianists.

Two of the year’s most invigorating jazz albums—Ahmad Jamal’s In Search ofMomentum and Martial Solal’s NY-1—are by pianists in their 70s whose careers are in breezy renewal. Jazz has its share of septuagenarians playing nearly as spectacularly as they ever have—Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman. But I can’t think of anyone who, in the process, has so re-energized, even transformed his sound as Ahmad Jamal.

Jamal achieved huge fame in the mid-’50s for his elegant treatment of standards and for his finger-snapping original, ” Poinciana” (which rose to the top of the pop charts). Miles Davis proclaimed Jamal a major influence: He emulated Jamal’s soft touch and spacious phrasing; he told his pianist at the time, Red Garland, to play like Jamal; his albums of the era feature many of the same ballads Jamal played (“Just Squeeze Me,” “My Funny Valentine,” “But Not for Me”). Miles moved on—inspired, in part, by new piano stylists, the bluesy Wynton Kelly and the harmonically inventive Bill Evans—but Jamal didn’t. Jamal always possessed a stately swing, but it could easily devolve into stuffiness. I once saw him on a talk show in the ‘80s, ponderously protesting the word “jazz” as a nasty vulgarism, insisting that it be called “American classical music.” Both he and his music lacked a certain spontaneity and joy.

That charge can no longer be leveled. In Search of Momentum bristles with wit, drama, even adventure. It cooks, it simmers—when it needs to, it boils—all without sacrificing a wisp of grace. Something happened to Jamal this past decade. The neon signs first flashed on his 1994 album, The Essence, Part 1. Suddenly, his left hand, once content to weave lush chords, was pounding out dense, discordant clusters; his right hand, while never untethered from the structure of melody, flitted and prowled on a looser, janglier leash. The album didn’t quite hold together; he was exploring new concepts without yet adopting any (his new disc’s title, In Search of Momentum, would have been more suitable for that one), but it offered an intriguing glimpse of possible coming attractions.

His new CD provides the full picture. Jamal has completely integrated the lithe lyricism of old with the muscular passion of new.

It’s clear from the opener, the title tune: a clarion anthem in the middle registers, clanging chords way down low. The second song, ” Should I,” is a jaunty number but with an edge. Jamal displays extraordinary dynamic range and fine precision at each shade, moving from crystalline triplets to heavy block-chords and back again without a seam. His rhythm section, which has been with him since The Essence, provides more color and counterpoint than mere accompaniment. James Cammack plucks the bass strings hard; the thing growls while it walks. Idris Muhammad crackles all around the rhythm on his trap set, smacking the snare in unexpected places, suggesting the beat rather than pedantically counting it. When Jamal moves from hard to soft, it’s as if he’s shifting first in synch, then in contrast, with his players, which lends a piquancy to the song title.

Songs, including song titles, have—always have had—meaning for Jamal. On ” I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” he rushes through a recitation of the melody but backs it with evenly paced, rhythmically deft chord changes, making the line sway in spite of itself. Deeper into the song, he shifts from single-note melodic phrases to heavily embroidered bursts, or he rushes ahead of the beat, then lags behind, creating a cauldron of tension, the sense of anxious longing yet also tenderness that lies at the heart of this standard. On “Where Are You Now,” he insouciantly dashes across the keyboard like a sonic Astaire, effortlessly fluid; the trills aren’t abstract or gratuitous, they convey the fleeting feel of seeking.

The only weak spots of the album are “Whispering,” which features an over-the-top velveteen singer, and the final two tunes, Monty Alexander’s “You Can See” and the standard “I’ll Always Be With You,” both edgelessly bouncy. Otherwise, the disc is a thrill: spry, dashing, tight but loose—Jamal’s majesty without the dread hush. Maybe he’d even dare call it jazz.

Martial Solal hasn’t changed his style much in the half-century he’s been playing. But since so few people have heard of him—he must be the world’s least-known great jazz pianist—any new Solal recording tends to startle, especially NY-1: Live at the Village Vanguard, which, among other virtues, is one of a mere handful of his discs to be produced by an American label (in this case, Blue Note).

Solal was born in Algiers in 1927. Classically trained but taken early with jazz, he played with Django Reinhardt in the ‘40s, wrote the soundtrack for Godard’s Breathless, and served as pianist of choice for the vast caravan of American jazzmen trekking through Paris in the ‘50s and beyond.

His music owes something to the staggered rhythm of Bud Powell, the fluent chromaticism of Art Tatum, the playful wit of Thelonious Monk, the analytic focus of Lennie Tristano, and the lyrical limber of Errol Garner. But the resulting mix sounds wholly natural and uniquely his own.

Solal is best when deconstructing a standard. On ” What Is This Thing Called Love?“, he breaks up the melody into its component parts, whittling it down to its sparest essence, then embellishing each chord with a dozen variations, all the while gripping the song’s tempo like a vise. He spins ” Body and Soul” as if each verse were the side of a prism or the fragment of a kaleidoscope, reflecting and revealing different angles of light and shades of color. The album’s highlight is a 13-minute version of ” Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” an endlessly inventive stream of improvisation—not in the manner of be-bop, which bases its variations on a song’s chords, but more like Rollins or Monk, improvising on any and every element of a song at hand: its chords, melody, theme, mood, a suggestion, a single note, whatever strikes Solal’s fancy—no verse the same, all unfailingly enchanting.

His rhythm section, Francois Moutin on bass and Bill Stewart on drums, keeps pace and spurs him on, which is all anyone could wish for. Solal is an unheralded phenomenon in jazz: not merely virtuosic or distinctive, but—this is a dangerous word, though in this case, an indisputable one—unique.