Ahmad Jamal

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Ahmad Jamal

November 2011
A+E Interactive Bay Area Arts and Entertainment Blog
Jim Harrington - Ahmad Jamal at Yoshi's Oakland Yoshi's Oakland

Ahmad Jamal turned 80 in July. One could be forgiven, however, for assuming he's 70. Or even 60.

He still looks great and his energy level is amazing. Then there's his handiwork on the piano, which – in terms of most of the technical aspects, as well all of the artistic ones – surpasses what the majority of players one-quarter his age could dream of delivering onstage.

Indeed, Jamal proved to be an ageless wonder on Friday, the first of three nights at Yoshi's at Jack London Square in Oakland. The jazz man – best known for the ‘50s hit “Poinciana” and his influence on Miles Davis' music – proved worthy of the title “living legend,” though his set had less to do with nostalgia than it did with proving that he still has plenty to offer.

The Pittsburgh native's focus was clearly on his two most-recent albums, 2008's “It's Magic” and this year's “A Quiet Time.” That was fine with the near-capacity crowd, since Jamal and his terrific quartet – bassist James Cammack, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena – were able to make newer songs (and arrangements) sound like classics.

Plus, it was undeniable treat to see Jamal – one of the planet's most accomplished jazz artists – play in a 300-capacity club. The last time he came through Northern California, mind you, it was to perform before thousands as a headliner at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Fueled by Riley and Badrena's diversely appealing work – as well as by Jamal's often quite percussive playing – the music was often frantically rhythmic and beat happy. That played well to Jamal's strengths as a composer and a bandleader, resulting in epic crescendos, dramatic tempo changes and plenty of open space for the pianist to showcase his light touch.

Jamal – dressed in a brown jacket, matching pants and tinted glasses – opened the set with a reinvigorated Afro-Cuban arrangement of “Swahililand” that individually showcased each of the musicians. He followed with the title track to “A Quiet Time” and then “Dynamo,” the first of which conveyed a rainbow's worth of colors, while the second was a much-more-concise tour-de-force that definitely lived up to its name.

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