by Ted Gioia, The Honest Broker newsletter, April 16, 2023
Other musicians have changed the sound of jazz in various ways. But Ahmad Jamal actually transformed time and space.
It sounds like I’m describing Einstein or Kant. But those aren’t inappropriate comparison points for this seminal pianist, who left us earlier today at age 92. He opened up an alternative universe of sound, freer and less constrained than what we had heard before. The rules of improvised music were different after he appeared on the scene.
(...) But then Ahmad Jamal sat down at the piano, and just floated over the beat. Sometimes he played almost nothing. Jazz fans had never heard this way of improvising before. “On some numbers, he will virtually sit things out for a chorus,” exclaimed critic Martin Williams—who struggled to figure out why it worked. “It appears that Jamal’s real instrument is not the piano at all, but his audience.” How else could you explain his way of captivating listeners while playing so few notes.
(...) The simple truth is that I never heard any record from Jamal that wasn’t distinguished. His biggest competition came from his own past work—and the many younger musicians who borrowed heavily from his piano conception. But even as later generations learned from Ahmad Jamal, he still stood out among any crowd of imitators.
Read more of this wonderful tribute by Ted Gioia in his newsletter, where it was published initially.