Ahmad Jamal livens up Chicago Symphony Orchestra at 84

By Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

Ahmad Jamal may have been sitting behind a piano for more than 60 years, but he has been able to keep that half-century fresh and inventive. Jamal, now 84, opened the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Jazz Series on Oct. 10, showing the audience in his “second home” that he has still got it.

After coming out on stage to an adoring crowd, Jamal took his place behind the Symphony Orchestra’s concert grand piano, joining his quartet. The quartet, which consisted of Jamal, Herlin Riley on drums, percussionist Manolo Badrena and Reginald Veal on bass, lead off with a reworked version of “Autumn Rain” from Jamal’s 2012 release, Blue Moon. The song showcases Jamal’s virtuosity as a piano player, kicking off with the sporadic rumblings of Thelonious Monk and transitioning into the melodic yet spatial palette of modal jazz that Jamal is known for.

Grouped together at center stage, Jamal took to conducting his band mid-song, cueing a solo from one of the three men with the point of a finger, while also signaling crescendos and halts with his hands during the performance. However, Jamal is no stranger to leading incredibly talented musicians—one of the better-respected trios in jazz history is the Ahmad Jamal Trio of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The trio included Jamal, bassist Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier, with whom Jamal recorded his breakthrough album, At the Pershing: But Not for Me, in 1958 while the trio was the resident band at the Pershing Hotel on East 64th Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago.

Jamal has come a long way since that record, releasing an album almost every year—a total of 64 to date. Each album stands on its own as new piece of work taken in a different direction by a master pianist. Jamal displayed this evolution of his music with a selection of songs from two of his latest releases, Blue Moon and Saturday Morning. The selection features his signature modal jazz style with brush strokes of avant-garde nuances with songs like his rendition of Billy Reid’s “The Gypsy.”

The quartet went onto to play Jamal’s version of Duke Ellington’s “I’ve Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good” from Jamal’s 2013 album, Saturday Morning. With the familiar tones of a popular tune, the audience moved with the music in the way that can only be done with jazz, with Jamal leading them along with the traditional chords, inflecting a taste of his own stylings on Ellington’s song.

The quartet closed the show to a standing ovation having only played Jamal’s newer material, but the audience did not let him off that hook that easy. A few moments after exiting the stage, the quartet resumed their places, Jamal thanked the crowd for the applause, then took his seat and went into what is perhaps his best know track outside of his die hard fans, “Poinciana,” which he first recorded at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago 56 years ago.

The perfect rendition of the hit transported the room back to the resplendent glory of the Pershing Hotel in 1958 where he first recorded the song. He performance proved that even at 84, Jamal is still the legendary pianist that rose to prominence during his tenure at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago who would go on to inspire many other jazz greats, including renowned trumpeter Miles Davis.

Once again, the quartet was given a standing ovation at the ending of “Poinciana” and meet once more in center stage to take a bow, but this time Jamal assured the crowd that he had not forgotten what Chicago means for him and his career, saying, “It all started here.”