Mr Mysterioso

Moody, magisterial and magnificent: that's Ahmad Jamal's jazz
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With a career as inscrutable as his adopted Muslim name (he was born Fritz Jones in 1930 in Pittsburgh), the pianist Ahmad Jamal is probably the last living legend of jazz to command a real sense of mystery. Performing rarely and recording fitfully over the years for a variety of labels, he's a figure every fan has heard about but seldom heard play. The one thing people do know about him is that he was a great influence on Miles Davis, not a man to take his influences lightly. "Jamal," Davis said, "knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement and the way he phrased notes and chords and passages."

Ironically, for years it was Jamal who was the more popular of the two musicians. In the Fifties, the pianist was as famous as his elder Pittsburgh colleague Errol Garner, and his landmark album Live at the Pershing, of 1958, stayed in the US jazz top 10 for 108 weeks. This early success resulted in a rather sniffy attitude by the critics to a pianist who disdained fashionable movements and who dared to leaven his virtuosity with Latin trills and lilts. But most of the obscurity is of Jamal's own making. The early fame and responsibility was, he says when I meet him at his Kensington hotel, too much: "I didn't cope with it, it coped with me. I had all of the traumas and the social burdens that all of us experienced, be it Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday or Lester Young. I did other things; became an entrepreneur, had restaurants, a record company, a sesame seed business in Somalia, a pharmaceutical company in Egypt... I've been trying to get out of the music business for years. You can't be a hypersensitive artist like Van Gogh or you cut off your ear. You have to be a tough cookie." He pauses, then leans forward across the table: "I am a tough cookie. But it took a long time."

Though Jamal in interview-mode is a professorial old pussycat, the toughness is apparent when you see him perform, which is one of the truly great jazz experiences. At the Glasgow Jazz Festival three years ago, in a show that was delayed for an hour while he argued backstage about tax being deducted from his fee, he was awesome. With his piano positioned sideways- on to the audience, he also displayed two quite distinct faces. To the audience he was all teeth and smiles. But to his fellow musicians (and Jamal almost always plays in the trio or quartet format), he shot out a belligerent semaphore of instructions requiring immediate attention.

The repertoire for each performance, he says, is left until he sees the venue and the audience. "I know what I'm going to do but a lot depends on when I get there, on the feeling. The artist and the audience have to feed from each other, there has to be a conversation." His piano style is itself built upon a kind of musical conversation, in which the cues, the registers and the dynamics are continuously changing, the flow of ideas shifting from left hand to right and between the piano and the instruments of the band.

Jamal seems to be getting better with age and his last two Verve albums, The Essence, parts 1 and 2, are astonishingly good. The chance to see him play should not be passed up lightly then. He may not pass this way again. As he says: "I don't like travelling. And I never get paid enough."n

The Ahmad Jamal Quartet plays QEH, London SE1, tonight (0171-960 4242) and Queen's Hall, Edinburgh (0131-668 2019) on Friday

Phil Johnson