Thursday, April 06, 2006


Ahmad Jamal, Love for Sale.
Ahmad Jamal, Poinciana.
Herbie Nichols, The Third World.
Herbie Nichols, Cro-Magnon Nights.

The history of jazz piano, a special love of "Locust St", can sometimes get too condensed. Usually, after we meet the founding fathers, from James P. Johnson to Bud Powell, there's then a broad-jump into the 1960s, to Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Left in the gap are a set of pianists who, while perhaps not the most revolutionary of players, still deserve far more consideration.

Here are two: the underrated Ahmad Jamal and the near-unknown Herbie Nichols.

Jamal, born in Pittsburgh in 1930, began playing in George Hudson's orchestra and built up a repuutation in Chicago. In 1952, he came to New York, playing at the Embers club (where, at one point, fed up with crowd chatter, he stomped off the stage in the middle of a set and went back to Chicago). He was championed first by John Hammond, then by Miles Davis, who was enthralled with Jamal's playing (Jamal's versions of "Autumn Leaves" and "It Never Entered My Mind" provided Davis with a roadmap for his own takes a few years later).

By 1955, Jamal had assembled an excellent trio: Jamal provided spare, clean piano (Nat Hentoff, like a number of critics, thought he was too clean, once calling Jamal a "cocktail pianist" in front of an indignant Miles Davis); Ray Crawford, on guitar, often provided the rhythms by rapping the strings (for much of "Love for Sale," his guitar sounds like a bongo); Israel Crosby, on bass, built a stage for them both to perform on.

Here are two tracks from an October 25, 1955 session for Epic Records:

Cole Porter's "Love For Sale" has been covered by seemingly every jazz musician of note; it's up there with "Body and Soul" in terms of jazz warhorses. But Jamal's interpretation, infused with a bit of Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca," is a fresh, excellent performance, during the course of which Jamal seems to take the keyboard to its utmost limits--lingering at the edges, diving across the keys. After Crawford's elegant solo, Jamal finds a note and then just massages it, repeating it close to two dozen times.

"Poinciana" would become Jamal's best-known track in a hit version he recorded in 1958. This take, however, is Jamal's first attempt, and is almost more of a solo vehicle for Crawford.

Find both on Legendary OKEH and Epic Recordings. For more on Jamal,
Nick Francis
had a nice post a while back. And Mr. Jamal himself is still going strong.

For much of his life, Herbie Nichols, a generation older than Jamal, lingered in obscurity, doing time in Dixieland revival bands to pay the bills (a galling fate for a player whose stated influences included Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Tatum and Bartok, and who once said "jazz has come a long way since 'the stomp'"). He hardly recorded, and a great number of his compositions are lost.

Nichols, born in 1919, began playing in the late 1930s and befriended a number of musicians, including Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams and J.J. Johnson. He was considered a bit of an oddity, as he would later acknowledge in an interview--"In those days I must have looked kind of like a professor, with a starched white shirt. I used to talk about poetry almost as much as I did about music."

Throughout the late '40s and early '50s, Nichols failed to get recording contracts, and had a hard time organizing groups and landing gigs. When he did get on stage, it was usually as a sideman for Dixieland bands, blues sessions and even rock & roll shows. At last, in 1955, he got a deal with Blue Note, for which he recorded his only sessions as a leader.

While his sound is indebted in part to Monk, Nichols' playing is dense, gnomic and utterly free of any blues or swing cliches. At his best, as in "Third World" or "Cro-Magnon Nights", he created a form of cool, rarefied jazz that has few antecedents. Nichols died in 1963 of tuberculosis, and is remembered best for his tune "Lady Sings the Blues," which Billie Holiday adopted as her own in her final years.

Recorded on May 6, 1955, with Art Blakey on drums and Al McKibbon (b). On Complete Studio Master Takes.

Top: Robert Rauschenberg's Bed.

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