Today would have been Ahmad Jamal’s 94th birthday, and by coincidence I was talking with students about him – his conceptual and pianistic brilliance, yes, and also the way he defied multiple sorts of career trajectory that would typically get someone identified as “historically significant” in the annals of jazz. He didn’t follow the “sideman to the stars” apprenticeship process that typifies so many nascent careers, and his style, even as it evolved significantly, remained highly individualistic, which is on the one hand a point in his favor and on the other hand something that resists linear narratives of what sub-style he revolutionized and who his followers were (Miles Davis’s devotion and co-opting of many of his early arrangements notwithstanding).

All that aside, he is one of the giants in the history of jazz piano, all the more so based on his rugged determination to follow his own muse. He was dismissed by some in his heyday (from a popularity standpoint), but those assessments look mighty foolish today. His touch at the piano, his mastery of texture and melody, and his use of his trio as a way of nonetheless creating lush and elaborate arrangements (sometimes spontaneously) are all remarkable.  

1 ) “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from Poinciana or The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings (1951)

I am particularly fond of this era of Ahmad’s trio, the drummer-less configuration featuring the guitar (and sometimes percussive guitar-tapping) of the criminally underrated Ray Crawford, and given the influence this particular unit had on Miles, clearly I’m not alone. Here Eddie Calhoun (later to be a central part of Erroll Garner’s most renowned trios) joins them for a swinging rendering of this classic standard.

2 ) “New Rhumba” from Chamber Music of the New Jazz (1955)

This Jamal composition is rendered by the same trio as above except for the bass chair being held by Israel Crosby, an essential collaborator of his for years. This gorgeous, elegant tune is better known from Gil Evans’s orchestrated version from Miles Davis’s “Miles Ahead” record, though as you can hear, all the DNA is already in there.  

3 ) “Poinciana” from at the Pershing: But Not for Me (1958)

I could nearly have done an entire top 10 list of his versions of this often-corny (in its pre-Ahmad iterations, anyway) tune, dating back to 1955, but the best-known one (from his best-known and most popular album) is worthy of any hype it’s ever gotten. Much of that is due to the truly iconic groove set up by Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier (any jazz drummer worth their salt will respond immediately to a request to put a “Poinciana groove” on a tune). Over the top of that, Ahmad’s patience and inventiveness are particularly evident.

4 ) “Broadway” from Ahmad Jamal’s Alhambra (1961)

Recorded live at the club he ran for a time, Ahmad’s trio (the same as on the previous track) is by this point quite a well-oiled machine. As much as they are known for their own idiosyncratic approach to trio arrangements, this performance also just swings like crazy.

5 ) “Tranquility” from Tranquility (1968)

By the time of this recording, Ahmad’s third great trio was already several years old. I love every one of the records featuring Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Gant on drums, but this remarkable Jamal composition is to me the point where his more modernized sound fully coalesced. The groove, pacing, and band tightness is nothing new, but the edgier harmonies and phrasing and displays of his prodigious physical technique are revelatory, especially for folks only familiar with his 1950s output.  

6 ) “Stolen Moments” from The Awakening (1970)

This record is the most famous representation of the trio from the previous track and it is stunning. I truly can’t articulate how important this album was and remains to my own conception of music except to say that taking these sounds away from my musical palette would be like taking blue away from a painter. I could have chosen virtually any song here (and his original tunes on “Side A” are all deserving) but chose this one in part because for jazz fans it’s instructive to hear the development of his conception through the lens of familiar material.

7 ) “Poinciana” from Freeflight (1971)

And if we’re talking about comparisons, put this one (recorded with the Nasser/Gant trio live in Switzerland) on after listening to list item #3 above. On some level he’s the same Ahmad as ever, yet we can hear the modernity and moments of uninhibitedness characteristic of this era in abundance.

8 ) “Winter Snow” from Rossiter Road (1986)

My first exposure to Ahmad’s music was from taking a couple of his 1980s records out from the local library and they still hold up. This alternately funky and swinging track features three important later-career collaborators, bassist James Cammack (playing electric here), drummer Herlin Riley (who would rejoin his group more than a quarter century after this), and percussionist Manolo Badrena.   

9 ) “St. Louis Blues” from Some of My Best Friends Are . . . the Piano Players by Ray Brown (1994)

Ahmad-as-sideman recordings are quite scarce, which makes this a particularly instructive document of his piano work outside of the context of his own bandleading conception. It is far more than an educational artifact, though – hearing him play the blues beside bassist Ray Brown and drummer Lewis Nash is delightful.

10 ) “Silver” from Saturday Morning (2013)

I first heard Ahmad perform this hard-grooving yet moody tune in 2001, and I’m so glad he eventually recorded it, here with Riley, Badrena, and bassist Reginal Veal. For someone who seemed to operate so thoroughly on his own plane, his fondness for other pianists (as demonstrated by his renditions of tunes by Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and others) was also an important part of his consciousness, evidenced further by this tribute to Horace Silver.


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