Jazz Village JV570027
Musical Performance: *****
Sound Quality: *****
Overall Enjoyment: *****
What a force of nature Ahmad Jamal is! At age 83, he could easily coast on his reputation and extensive discography, playing rote shows to appreciative audiences. Instead, he continues to push himself and, in the process, astonish jazz fans by making rhythmically challenging, harmonically audacious recordings. Saturday Morning is, by my count, his 62nd album as a leader, and it follows last year’s powerful Blue Moon. This time Jamal took his quartet -- Reginald Veal on bass, Herlin Riley on drums, and Manolo Badrena on percussion -- into La Buissonne Studio, in France, for 11 tracks that crackle with energy and inventiveness.
The title track is indeed as bright as a fall Saturday morning, but also running through it is a deep current of Sunday gospel. Riley’s thumping backbeat gives it an R&B funkiness, while Veal fattens things up with a swaying bass line. Badrena adds a bit of conga and some other percussive touches that add to and open up the track. Jamal’s sustained chords ring joyfully, and the melody stays with you like a good pop song. His extended improvisation begins with an exploration and expansion of the melody, but he later introduces a series of loud, sustained, rolling chords, with splashes of notes that recast the tune.
Jamal’s way with a ballad is peerless, and he tackles four here, including Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” His long experience adds gravitas to the tune, and he has enough confidence not to be intimidated by it. His witty quotes from the intro to “Take the ‘A’ Train” add humor and warmth to his long explorations of the main theme, which alternate flowing lines of melody with percussive chordal attacks. Jamal’s “Edith’s Cake” flows easily from a delicately balladic opening section to a more swinging middle and then back, with sensitive accompaniment by the other players.
Veal, Riley, and Badrena are vital to the impact of Saturday Morning. They negotiate the tricky time shifts in “Back to the Future” with ease, and their strong support in the ballads prods Jamal to greater heights. Their pure sense of funk in the title track and “The Line” helps the leader stay sharp, and part of his sense of joy no doubt comes from being with players who are so versatile and so willing to tackle whatever he throws at them.
Gérard De Haro recorded Saturday Morning, and Will Schillinger mixed and mastered it. The sound is stunning -- dynamic, with a deep soundstage and exquisite detail. Jamal’s Steinway sounds majestic and large, and Riley’s drums are resonant and snappy. Veal’s bass has authority and fullness, and every one of Badrena’s percussion touches comes across cleanly. Schillinger includes a note about the recording: “Without the use of high-pass or low-pass filters and with minimal limiting, the full spectrum of audio is left harmonically and dynamically open.”
No hype there. The sound is a tribute to a musician, and a recording, that should be treasured.
. . . Joseph Taylor