More than sixty years after his first recordings, Ahmad Jamal continues to reinvent his playing. Exuding grace and a kind of perpetually youthful dignity, his sound has changed to keep pace with musical developments while remaining unique, mirroring the approach to standards that helped to secure his fame and recognition all those decades ago. Unlike 2010’s A Quiet Time, recorded for Dreyfus, there are only three Jamal compositions on Blue Moon. His group has also changed -- only his mainstay percussionist Manolo Badrena still onboard from Jamal’s final disc for the excellent French label. Long-time collaborator Herlen Riley is back in the drum seat, making for some astonishingly tight traps and percussion interplay throughout. Reginald Veal provides perfect support from the bass chair, putting the final touch to one of the fantastic Jamal rhythm sections we’ve come to expect since the late 1950s.
The recipe affords delicacies galore, especially in the title track. To my knowledge, Jamal has never recorded it, but it illustrates all of the changes Jamal brings to group deployment. The rhythmic precision is still there, with Riley, Badrena and Veal locked up tight in a playful vamp that guides the tune along its nearly 10-minute path. From the moment he enters, Jamal rides the rhythms while thwarting the expectations they set. At first, he only syncopates, his octaves and block chords sporting the boldness and rhythmic freedom of recent years. The melody comes in fits and starts, each phrase stretching way beyond its original length, prefigured, fragmented and reassembled with increasing complexity. Jamal leaves plenty of room for continuous rhythm section variation and interplay, inserting dazzling trills, runs and inter-registral flourishes that speak to undiminished virtuosity and invention. This is not free jazz, by any means, but the way in which Jamal reacts with and against the rhythm section blurs all boundaries, blowing the tune wide open and revealing its essence. Only the last note sounds like those early Jamal trio recordings, with their sudden and impeccably timed dynamic changes. Jamal’s treatment of “Woody’n You,” which he waxed brilliantly on his now-legendary Pershing date from 1958, exhibits similar characteristics, complete with that whiplash final gesture, really the only harkening back to days of yore.
Of the new compositions, “Autumn Rain” is the standout to these ears. Harmonically adventurous and frenetic at points, but then settling down to a funky serenity at others, Jamal imbues every gesture with the rhythmic and dynamic freedom afforded by his group dynamic, Riley changing timbre as often as Badrena lays down a new pattern. Veal gets a bit of solo time, and his intonation is as flawless as his timing.
I’m not quite certain why Riley’s drums sound so unnatural; it seems that some sort of effect was used for enhancement, maybe in post-production, but it is the only blemish on an otherwise first-rate production, one of Jamal’s best in recent years.