Ahmad Jamal - piano; Israel Crosby - bass; Vernel Fournier - drums
One of the most elegant, economical and harmonically inventive pianists in jazz, Ahmad Jamal has been a highly regarded figure among fellow musicians for the past 50 years. Jamal's appearance at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival with his groundbreaking trio featuring bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier came a year after their influential and best-selling Argo recording Live at the Pershing: But Not for Me, which established the group as a major force in modern jazz on the strength of their magical chemistry on such catchy tunes as "Woody 'N You," "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and the hit single "Poinciana." Jamal continues to tour and record with his longstanding and highly interactive rhythm tandem of bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad.
Jamal's stimulating set at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival on July 2 (his birthday) was marked by a chamber-like sensibility and near-telepathic interplay. On the opener they demonstrate a strong affinity for swinging on an uptempo rendition of the ballad "It's You Or No One," which is underscored by drummer Fournier's brisk brushwork and tightly orchestrated accents on the kit. For their second number, the opening statements on tom toms by Fournier signify "Poinciana," eliciting immediate screams of recognition from fans upfront at Freebody Park. The particular groove played by the New Orleans born drummer here - a combination of that insinuating tom tom pulse and a pronounced kick drum accent on the 'four-and' - comes directly out of the New Orleans parade band second line experience that Fournier grew up with in the Crescent City. He organically melds that infectious N'awlins flavored groove to Jamal's beautifully poignant melodic theme on this oft-covered jazz classic, which the pianist continues to play as an encore number to this day. A master of dynamics on the keys as well as a renegade spirit who can summon up unpredictable chord voicings and surprising rhythmic cadences at the drop of a hat, Jamal plays this tune delicately, occasionally erupting with powerfully percussive block chords to drastically alter the dynamic. Fournier offers a veritable clinic here with his polyrhythmic variations on a standard second line groove.
Next up is a supremely well-crafted rendition of the standard "There Is No Greater Love," with Jamal offering sly reharmonization and rhythmic variation while swinging lightly and politely on this Isham Jones tune. His solo here is full of nuance and melodic invention, with a few nods to Erroll Garner and Earl Hines along the way as the stellar rhythm tandem of Crosby and Fournier keep a steadily swinging pulse throughout. From there they launch into a sizzling uptempo rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Surrey with the Fringe On Top," a Broadway show tune from Oklahoma. With Fournier again setting the pace with his brisk brushwork on the kit, the trio navigates this breakneck tempo with remarkable precision and ease, swinging as one. They close out their set with a soulful rendition of George Gershwin's "But Not For Me," the title track from their landmark 1958 recording from the Pershing Room on Chicago's South Side. One again, Fournier's distinctive and subtle use of tom toms sets the relaxed tone. This formidable unit remained intact until 1962, at which point both Fournier and Crosby joined George Shearing's Quintet and appeared on his 1962 Blue Note recording, Jazz Moments.
A native of Pittsburgh, pianist Ahmad Jamal drew inspiration from fellow Pittsburgh native Erroll Garner along with piano greats Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie and Nat King Cole. He gained his first professional bandstand experience in 1948 with George Hudson's orchestra and later joined swing violinist Joe Kennedy's group the Four Strings. After forming his own first group in 1950 with bassist Eddie Calhoun and guitarist Ray Crawford, he was signed the following year to the Okeh label by renowned talent scout and producer John Hammond (who had previously bolstered the careers of Count Basie and Charlie Christian).
In 1955, the newly formed Ahmad Jamal Trio (with Israel Crosby replacing bassist Calhoun) recorded two albums for Okeh before switching over to the Chess label's jazz subsidiary, Argo. They debuted with the innovative Chamber Music of the New Jazz, which greatly influenced both Miles Davis and Gil Evans. In 1956, Jamal replaced guitarist Crawford with a drummer, Walter Perkins, who was in turn replaced in 1958 by New Orleans native Vernell Fournier, thus cementing the classic Ahmad Jamal Trio lineup. The group took up residency in the lounge of the Pershing Hotel in Chicago, where its performances became a magnet for other musicians in town. A live album recorded there, Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me, became a crossover hit in 1958 and introduced the pianist's signature tune "Poinciana," which was underscored by Fournier's insinuating second line groove. Following the success of that album, Jamal opened his own club, the Alhambra, and recorded two albums there in 1961 -- Alhambra and All of You. His classic trio disbanded the following year and he formed a new trio with bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Chuck Lampkin. Jamal continued to record for the Argo/Cadet label through the '60s before recording a series of more experimental outings for the Impulse! label which utilized Fender Rhodes electric piano (1971's Freeflight and 1972's Outertimeinnerspace).
Jamal recorded for the 20th Century label through the '70s. After signing with Atlantic in 1985, he released such acclaimed, chart-topping recordings as Digital Works, Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Rossiter Road, Crystal and Pittsburgh, all of which showcased his percussive, vamp-oriented piano style, complex harmonies and melodic embellishments. In the '90s, he recorded for Telarc and in 1994 was named an American Jazz Master Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. Jamal subsequently signed with the French Birdology label and later recorded for another French label, Dreyfus Jazz. His most recent recording is 2008's It's Magic on Dreyfus, which features Jamal's longtime rhythm tandem of bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad. (Milkowski)