Unless you’re a card-carrying member of AARP, Ahmad Jamal has played piano for longer than you’ve been alive. At the tender age of three, the Pennsylvania native crawled up onto his family’s piano bench and flaunted a prodigious talent for the keys that has kept him busy for, oh, seven decades or so. But despite a nearly three-quarter-century of performing and recording, Ahmad is still likely best known as a major influence on the most recognizable name in jazz history: Miles Davis. When Davis spoke, jazzbos listened, and Davis spoke gushingly.
In fact, in the oft-truculent trumpeter’s 1989 autobiography, Miles, Davis piles praise on Jamal’s taste and minimalism. “He knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrased notes and chords and passages,” Davis wrote in one of several effusive paragraphs, going on to detail his quest to attain a stylistically similar pianist for his own combo. (Happily, Davis settled on Red Garland.)
Certainly, there are worse things than being cited as a primary influence by such an iconic figure as Davis, but the endorsement tends to overshadow Jamal’s music, which stands just fine on its own. Not unlike, say hey, a young Willie Mays, Jamal makes it look easier than it is, his style an understated grace deceptively masking a virtuosic explosiveness just underneath the surface, always at the ready. Notable recordings include Freeflight, Pittsburgh, I Remember Duke, Hoagy & Strayhorn, and the recently released “early years” compilation, The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings, which contains the classic “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and the jazz-sized hit “Poinciana,” as well as one of Davis’ favorite Jamal compositions, “Ahmad’s Blues.”
But what lingers in Jamal’s best work — according to fans, critics, and Miles Davis alike — is that sense of space, his ability to make silence as meaningful as the notes that break it. “I don’t call it space,” Jamal says. “I haven’t ever called it space. I call it discipline.”