A funny thing happened on the way to The Kennedy Center…

One of my Skype piano students, Phil, had been studying transcriptions of the great jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, and for months now has been excitedly looking forward to hearing the master play a concert at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (Phil lives in the D.C area. Coincidentally, the day before the concert, I was giving a Skype lesson to another student of mine, Bill, who lives in Pennsylvania, and he casually mentioned “I’ll be going to see Ahmad Jamal tomorrow night in D.C.”

Wow – small world! I live in New York City, and two of my online jazz piano students, who live in different states, would be attending the same concert! (Even though I myself couldn’t attend, I have happy memories of hearing Mr. Jamal in concert during the 1980s.)

I thought it would be fun to ask my two students to share their impressions of the concert here, instead of the usual reviews we read by professional critics.

Here’s what they said:

Phil:

Really fun evening - I'd be interested in hearing what your other student has to say (I'm sure he had a much better visual perspective on things, being up front. We were about 20 rows back). Here are my impressions, in no particular order:

Very cool combo - upright bass, traditional jazz drum kit and then a second percussionist with a cocktail drum style set up. The drummer was James Jones, but I didn't catch the names of the other players. Mr. Jamal introduced them at one point, but I wish they had been printed somewhere.

Anyway, he played for about 80 minutes straight. He's 89 and moving slow, but he sheds 70 years as soon as he sits at the piano. Still has a great technical touch - what I found interesting in watching him perform live was the contrasts he could pull out of repeating single note, the great groove he could lay down on repeated left hand bass pattern and how he could still pull off those runs. I also think that live performances give me a better appreciation for dynamics - I hear them much better live than on recordings.

I also enjoyed watching him give his combo space to do their thing - he dropped out completely sometimes (including standing up and leaning back on the piano with his hands in his pockets while one of the percussionists soloed - still a great showman), or did some basic comping behind them. They all seemed like they were having a great time.

Don't know a whole lot of his discography, but I think much of the concert were his original pieces and somewhat later stuff (no real standards to speak of, and to me many of the tunes leaned more towards a Latin sound.) I was able to pick out Poinciana (of course), along with Tangerine, Swahililand and Perugia.

Lot of fun - he's not scheduled to appear anywhere yet for 2020 so I'm glad I could catch him last night.

Bill:

It was unbelievable, Ron!

We were in the 3rd row dead center and in total awe for 75 minutes. Hard to believe someone 89 could play with that level of fluidity and virtuosity. His soloing was lyrical and very chord tone based. Same inimitable style and unique use of rhythms and orchestral sounds. As you have been advising, he lets the music go where it wants and it was obvious several times that his band mates didn’t know where he was going but were totally loving it and smiling/laughing in disbelief themselves. What a treasure that guy is. I wish he did more touring in this area so I could see him more often.

Obviously, I am just a biased, irrational Ahmad Jamal fan.

Feel free to share my comments and the one about reharmonization. The extensive reharmonizatons may be why Phil didn’t recognize some of the standards, because on several of the standards he not only reharmonized but enhanced the melody significantly with great variations except for a very few places, where he played just enough of the original melody to tease the audience! Of course, I may have recognized more of the standards simply because I’m old! However, Phil is right though that at least half of the tunes were ones he wrote.

There you go – actual reports from real jazz piano students. I hope this inspires you to listen to some Ahmad Jamal today!

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Ron

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