Jazz Albums Round-up

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The Independent Culture

Satisfying though the piano trios of Brad Mehldau and EST can be, each time I've seen them, I've come home and played records by Ahmad Jamal, just to remember how it's done: the sparkle, the dynamics, the incredibly daring repetitions in which half a tune appears to go by on the same one note. The wily old Pittsburgh pianist, who has been recording since 1951, certainly knows how to take a line for a walk, too. While his right hand sets off on long, pixilated runs, like a cartoon version of Art Tatum, the left stays home and plays God, grounding the darting sprite at the other end of the keyboard with impossibly heavy gravity. Because Jamal's experiments take place amid such dazzling showmanship and swing, we've failed to notice how radical a figure he is, or to understand why Miles Davis was so mesmerised in the Fifties, when tunes such as the divine "Poinciana" were big jazz hits. Is Cecil Taylor really more revolutionary? Or just more boring?

The good news is that Ahmad Jamal is still going strong. His new album, In Search Of (Birdology, distributed by MacTwo, *****), presents us with exactly the same technique as in his greatest recordings, and only a slight decrease in velocity. While no one could replace the original trio team of Vernell Fournier and Israel Crosby, Jamal's new drummer, Idris Muhammad, and bassist, James Cammack, make a pretty good fist of it. Of course, the main attraction is Jamal himself, who also composes six of the 10 tracks. From the opening, wildly grandstanding title track, to the closing ballad "I'll Always Be with You", we are presented with a very strong case for Jamal as the greatest jazz pianist in the world. You can argue that he's too showy, or too vulgar, but that's as indivisible from his genius as Keith Jarrett's various problems are from his. The digital recording is rather glassily harsh, and Cammack's (or, more likely, Jamal's) choice of an electric bass an aberration, but otherwise this is a very hard act to follow. For the best of Jamal's old stuff, the two-disc set Cross Country Tour (Chess) is the one to get.

Punk Jazz: The Jaco Pastorius Anthology (Warner Jazz, *****) tells the story of the tragic wunderkind of the electric bass through two CDs, 28 tracks, and an essay by his biographer, Bill Milkowski. Many of the numbers will be familiar to fans (although, ludicrously, there's only one by Weather Report), and there's some truly dreadful muso-fusion. But almost every note Pastorius plays sounds ineffably right; his sense of time is unerringly on the money, and he's funkier than any white man with that haircut has a right to be. The gems include a dynamite early home recording, an achingly sexy soul-vamp with Little Beaver, and "Foreign Fun", a fantastic live jam with Albert Mangelsdorff on trombone. Pastorius - already a wreck through drugs and booze - was beaten to death by a nightclub bouncer in 1987, aged 36. What a waste.