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Fabian Almazan

The promising young pianist celebrates the release of Rhizome, his inspired sophomore album and his first on Blue Note, with a six-night residency at the venerable subterranean club. Like Ahmad Jamal’s 1994 album with the Assai String Quartet, Almazan augments his core ensemble with densely orchestrated strings, resulting in a chamber jazz aesthetic that explores the musical roots of his native Cuba, with a nod to the operatic zarzuela tradition. Cascading flourishes give way to pizzicato ostinato plucking, complemented by a rhythmic backdrop that uses tom hits and hand claps to maintain a percussive clave. At 30, Almazan is a pianist to watch.

Aug. 12-17, 8:30 & 10:30 p.m., 2014

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Ahmad Jamal

Ask Pete Rock about Ahmad Jamal. He might tell you that chords tumble out of Jamal’s piano like water falling over a series of rocks—with total ease, to devastating effect. It is from this chordal cascade that Rock sculpted the soundscape to Nas’s immortal “The World Is Yours,” sampling Jamal’s pristine “I Love Music.” Jamal is a noted jazz minimalist, letting the spaces left in-between his tasteful notes speak for themselves, and in this way, his music emphasizes all the forced silences of slavery and displacement that rest at the heart of the African-American cultural tradition. Jazz occupies a privileged position as the art music of that tradition, and no jazz pianist represents the restrained elegance of the African-American struggle for expression better than Jamal. Perhaps this is why he has been able to enter his eighth decade, both as a human being and a pianist, with the same focus and vision that saw him erupt on the scene with 1958’s Live At The Pershing. His 2012 release Blue Moon shows that the world is still his.

Sept. 18-21, 8 p.m., 2013

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New Zion Trio

The way Jamie Saft funnels his piano visions through a dub filter is one of the most arresting variations on the trad trio sound that has come along in ages. Imagine Ahmad Jamal genuflecting to Haile Selassie while receiving whispered advice from local rabbi Scratch Perry and you’ve got an inkling where this interplay-addicted outfit and its hypnotic riddims are headed on any given night.

Sun., Jan. 6, 8:30 p.m., 2013

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Ahmad Jamal, Vindicated

At a time when Miles Davis was singing Ahmad Jamal’s praises to anyone who would listen, hailing the pianist as an influence on his own thinking as a bandleader, the opposing view was best expressed by Martin Williams, the most persuasive jazz critic of the 1950s and ’60s (and my mentor long before I knew him personally). “Jamal’s real instrument is not the piano at all, but his audience,” Williams wrote in 1961, caricaturing the artist’s style thusly: “On some numbers, he will virtually sit things out for a chorus, with only some carefully worked out rhapsodic harmonies by his left hand or coy tinklings by his right. After that, a few bombastic block chords by both hands, delivered forte, will absolutely lay them in the aisles.”

This in spite of Jamal’s “interesting harmonic substitutions” and melodic “openness,” complemented by the “very light and impeccably accurate rhythmic pulse” supplied by bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier. But weren’t these the very qualities so admired by Davis and other musicians, along with Jamal’s acrobatic use of dynamics and space for tension and release? For Williams, as for most of his critical brethren, Davis’s stamp of approval only meant that “good art can be influenced by bad.”

Such sharp disagreements between musicians and critics aren’t as common as the former like to pretend, but this one was a doozy. Audiences obviously concurred with Miles: Jamal’s Live at the Pershing spent more than two years on the charts, peaking at No. 3 behind Van Cliburn and Sing Along With Mitch in the fall of ’58. But what has time decided? Which is to say, what do I think? In combination with the pleasure I’ve taken from hearing Jamal in concert over the years, the 9-CD The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions 1956–62 (Mosaic) tilts the evidence in Miles’s favor.

Not that Williams was completely wrong. On limpid ballads and medium bounces like “Easy to Remember” and “That’s All,” those rhapsodic harmonies and coy tinklings puddle like condensation on Don Draper and Roger Sterling’s cocktail napkins. Numbers like “Taboo” (with Crosby doubling bass and maracas) and even Hoagy Carmichael’s “Ivy” skirt perilously close to bachelor-pad exotica. Doing “Too Late Now” as a beguine and “Autumn Leaves” as a bolero smacks of gimmickry, and too much bluesy ambience divorced from genuine blues feeling only set the stage for Ramsey Lewis and worse. (Anybody remember Quartet Tres Bien?)

But Jamal’s plentiful virtues are also on display throughout the box (available from MosaicRecords.com), and these begin with the understated emotional depth of those ballads—”Autumn in New York,” for example, or a stunning “Two Different Worlds,” the melodies approached from an odd angle, with an ear toward reharmonizing them. Though he wouldn’t fully blossom as a composer till later, his scattered originals here—including the tender “Selerito” and the sinuous, through-composed “Aki and Ukthay”—are handsomely lyrical. During this period, Jamal had a knack for alerting improvisers to overlooked jazz potential in the most unlikely places: “On Green Dolphin Street” is just the most famous example of a tune that subsequently entered the standard repertoire (albeit with a big boost from Miles).

And then there’s “Poinciana,” Live at the Pershing‘s breakout FM hit and arguably the most unlikely Jamal vehicle of all, though still his signature tune decades later—a moony ode to the trees and the “rhythmic savage beat” of the jungle that was a minor hit for Bing Crosby in 1944. (Benny Carter lent it jazz credibility with an instrumental cover that same year.) Jamal strips it to the essentials, then expands on them. Great pop as well as then-state-of-the-art jazz, it lures you in with Fournier’s bass-drum and keeps you in suspense through seven-plus minutes of syncopations, cross-rhythms, and crescendos.

In the ’50s, jazz fans overcame their differences of opinion by dint of what might be called The Sideman Exemption: You might not dig Brubeck (or Oscar Peterson, or the MJQ), but everybody dug Paul Desmond (and Ray Brown, and Milt Jackson). On “Poinciana,” when Crosby almost subliminally segues from an ostinato to a four-four walk, or when Fournier suggests both mambo and New Orleans second-line with the same series of drumstrokes, it’s tough to imagine anyone not digging them, whatever your feelings about Jamal—the steadiness of their beat even as they ricochet between time signatures allows him the options of digging in or phrasing dancingly behind it. Like Erroll Garner (whose style could also verge on cocktail, and to whom he’s frequently compared), Jamal’s approach is orchestral, but he aims to evoke a big band’s shadings and only incidentally its roar. With Jamal, bass and drums are never just along for the ride, as they usually were with Garner, whose piano was an orchestra unto itself.

The Complete Argo Sessions is only complete as far as it goes. Though the set starts with an early version of the trio with Walter Perkins on drums, it doesn’t include the sessions with Crosby and guitarist Ray Crawford that first caught Miles’s ear (if not the public’s), and 1965’s “Extensions,” actually on which Jamal beat many of that era’s avant-gardists at their own game, lies outside its timeframe. A session featuring a string orchestra arranged by violinist Joe Kennedy, and another adding Crawford and the underrated Kennedy to the basic trio, achieve their modest charms at the cost of intruding on Jamal’s conversation with Crosby and Fournier. But as ever with Mosaic, an abundance of discographical mysteries are solved—not least the province of a longer and even more elegant and subtle live “Poinciana” from ’61 that was misidentified as the ’58 original when it surfaced on a GRP anthology several years ago.

Dig him or not, Jamal is always recognizably Jamal. Dick Hyman is his antithesis, a veteran pianist whose deepest loyalty is to Art Tatum and the swing era, though he’s able and willing to subsume himself in any material put before him, from ragtime to something approximating free improvisation. “When I address a particular idiom, I try to lose my individuality and become it,” he recently told DownBeat. Tom Lord’s The Jazz Discography lists close to 100 sessions under Hyman’s name, and that’s not even counting his ’70s Moog albums or such easy-listening oddities as The Sensuous Piano of “D.” (He might be publicly best known as musical coordinator for dozens of Woody Allen films). The new Dick Hyman’s Century of Jazz Piano, an Arbors Jazz release boxing five CDs and a DVD show-and-tell, is a triumph as both a convincing revisionist history and a chameleon’s vindication.

For Hyman, the story begins with Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s mid-19th-century cakewalks; along with Joplin, Morton, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller, he also ushers into the canon Gershwin’s piano rolls, Zez Confrey and Rube Bloom’s ’20s novelties, and Little Brother Montgomery’s blues. Even if the more-or-less-chronological presentation is occasionally jarring—Joe Sullivan’s “Little Rock Getaway” and an assortment of boogie-woogies sound like throwbacks following Bix Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist,” a visionary 1927 work whose impressionistic harmonies and stop-and-go rhythms have more in common with Ellington’s “The Clothed Woman” and later works by Monk and Bill Evans—Hyman’s touch is remarkably consistent. Ragtime and other pre-swing styles have largely fallen into the hands of period specialists and classical virtuosi letting their hair down; here’s a full-fledged jazz pianist who matches any of them for accuracy, while besting all of them in adding idiomatic variations when he deems it appropriate.

The collection starts to flag once Hyman passes bebop, if only because the influence of pianists like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner is so pervasive today we hardly need someone to remind us. That said, he captures Keith Jarrett’s rolling, white-gospel flavorings perfectly, and I prefer his interpretation of Chick Corea’s “Spain” to the genuine article—ditto his George Shearing. In the end, Hyman emerges as one of a kind, a kind extremely difficult to pin down.

Let me finish with a digression. Everything you’ve heard about the harmolodic showdown with Ornette Coleman that climaxed Sonny Rollins’s 80th-birthday concert at the Beacon last month is true. If not history in the making, the first encounter between our two greatest living saxophonists on an American stage at least counted as history amended. But there were spectacular turns by Jim Hall and Roy Hargrove even before Rollins brought out his surprise guest, and I swear this was two and a half hours of some of the very best live Sonny Rollins I’ve ever heard. There’s little chance of him reading this, and even less chance of him asking me for advice, or I’d beg him to release the concert in its entirety. So if necessary, call your Congressman.

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Marcus Roberts Trio

It’s all about fluidity and groove. The pianist has more than a little Ahmad Jamal in him, and that sense of melodic derring-do gives him the green light to motor around a tune’s outer regions. The classics that he likes to stick with (“In Walked Bud,” “Jitterbug Waltz”) get bent in all sorts of ways that stress informality even as they illustrate (rather killer) chops.

Dec. 21-27, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m.; Dec. 25-26, 11:30 p.m., 2009

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Ronald K. Brown’s Spirit Moves

Whatever idea inspires Ronald K. Brown to choreograph, his true subject is always the quest for spirituality and the freedom it can bestow. That’s why his dancers radiate joy and power through the pressure of their feet against the floor, the lift of their knees, the swing of their arms, and the ripples that pass through their bodies. If you stood among them, you’d be bathed in warmth—and I’m not talking about dancerly sweat. Heat runs through his marvelous performers like thick honey, making them pliant and resilient. Their pounces and rhythmic jitters blaze.

Brown’s new One Shot honors the centennial of Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908–1998), the Pittsburgh photographer who chronicled the lives of the city’s black population. People nicknamed him “One Shot” not because he was stingy with film, but because he knew that one shot is often all you need, if it’s a great one. Harris’s black-and-white photos of long-ago scenes slide intermittently across the Joyce’s cyclorama during Brown’s work. By way of an overture, heads isolated from their contexts swim closer until all you see of a face is one huge eye, the soul’s lens.

Lena Horne gives the second half of One Shot its focus. Harris’s image of her, reflected in a mirror as she leans dreamily across her dressing table, is the first thing we see, and we hear her singing “Someone to Watch Over Me” before the sweet ripple of Ahmad Jamal’s piano in “Poinciana” takes over. One by one, couples meet to dance: Shani Collins and Otis Donovan Herring, Clarice Young and Keon Thoulouis, Arcell Cabuag and Khetanya Henderson, and Tiffany Quinn and Juel D. Lane. Brown has no use for lifts: The couples dance as if their rich, sensual, dug-in movement, with its African heritage, was a playful (but never flippant) dialogue that they enjoy mightily. Brown has made a terrific solo for Quinn, and when she and Lane face off, her velvety earthiness contrasts deliciously with his long, skinny limbs and oily fluidity.

The piece’s first half contains some of the finest group choreography I’ve seen from Brown, especially in “The Meeting Room.” The brilliant West African percussionist Mamadouba Mohammed Camara plays the djembe live. Several slides show scenes of 1960s protests and picket lines, and the dancers all wear workaday olive-green shirts and trousers (costumes by Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya and Carolyn Mechka Cherry). Brown has structured the choreography as an ongoing procession that people feed into and drop out of, yet we perceive that image as a procession only intermittently. We may notice right away that Quinn’s solo echoes Young’s, and then that the dancers always enter from the same side with the same phrase. We become familiar with deep, lunging walks, pushing gestures, and wheeling, bent-legged leaps. Brown keeps the stage picture shifting in space and alive in terms of rhythm and dynamics without ever losing the vision of a people united, ready to step forward when others fall away. It’s a tremendous achievement.

Brown performs a solo in each half of the work, and some of his gestures find their way into the dancing of others. He seems to be thinking about—even addressing—the images behind him, as if they roused complications and affirmations within his body. Brown calls his first solo “Bellows,” after the accompanying music by Jamal, and refers in his program note to the sparks that can be fanned into flames and release ancestral spirits. Although nothing in One Shot attempts to duplicate Harris’s scenes, the first of three posed photos backing “Bellows” shows five schoolchildren, the next a slightly larger group of young-adult friends, the third a congregation. At the end of the evening, other photos rise up and sink down like memories, and the dancers congregate to watch them while Phyllis Hyman sings “Remember Who You Are.”

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That Old-Time Religion—Plenty of Piano, but No Vaudeville

Mary Lou Williams’s “St. Martin de Porres,” recorded soon after the 1962 canonization of “the patron saint of the broom,” a 17th-century Peruvian priest who was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed black slave, suffers by comparison to Ellington’s near-contemporaneous Sacred Concerts, as do three other Williams choral pieces on Black Saint of the Andes. Despite the role of the black church in both the civil rights movement and soul jazz, there was something almost quaint about the notion of a devout Christian (a Roman Catholic, in Williams’s case) jazz musician in an era when so many were embracing Islam and Eastern mysticism. With Ellington, it hardly mattered. He was a showman as well as a Christian, and his idea of worship was vaudeville right down to the tap dancers. Williams’s harmonically ambitious scores for mixed choir encourage no such suspension of disbelief; whether because she lacked experience writing for voices or because the singers frequently sound so damn white, these performances fail to stir the soul. (On two, she and the choirs settle for moving the body, and Williams, Budd Johnson, and Grant Green get to wail.) Nevertheless, this is an essential reissue for the nine trio performances (and one solo) on which we hear a pianist who could have rested on her swing-era laurels investigating such modernist touchstones as Monk’s skipping intervals, Horace Silver’s stabbing bass vamps, and Ahmad Jamal’s syncopated ostinatos—and nimbly making them her own. Listening to Williams move from major to minor and back again with implacable logic on “A Fungus Among Us,” you can understand why some folks thought she should get together with Cecil Taylor. But that’s another story.

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Strictly Solalian

Probably the worst label one can stick on a jazz musician is Intellectual, a nebulous term that almost always serves as a warning: You may be expected to do some work—if you consider close listening work. The second most insidious label is Virtuoso, which is invariably smudged with special pleading. Combine the two and you may be left with an artist who requires rapt attention while compensating for emotional reserve with technical dazzle. You might well call it spinach and say the hell with it. But your roughage might be Jack Daniel’s to me. At one time, Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans were characterized as skillfully complex, usually to hold them at bay, yet each man attracted a passionate cult that fermented into substantial popularity. Jamal usually keeps me at arm’s length, while Evans often invites me in; it may be the opposite with you. Lennie Tristano is still routinely described as cerebral, which once seemed tenable to me, yet now I find his Atlantic sessions flat-out thrilling. We could make this a parlor game, identifying undoubtedly brilliant musicians—Benny Carter, Lee Konitz, Herbie Nichols, Henry Threadgill—who remain alien to a broad audience.

It may seem inconceivable today that Parker, Gillespie, and Monk were initially derided as spinach, and yet they did contribute to the dismantling of the audience that embraced jazz in the 1930s, much as Coleman, Taylor, and Coltrane wore out many who came aboard in the 1950s. But they’re in the pantheon. I’m concerned here with those who keep circling Olympus without quite getting a foothold, of whom the patron saint is Art Tatum—the virtuoso’s virtuoso, the pianist’s pianist, the musician’s musician, who to this day, because he rejected a standard approach to linear improvisation, preferring juxtapositions that demand serious attention, worries many listeners into hapless indifference. His primary heir is the astonishing French pianist and composer Martial Solal, whose appearance at the Village Vanguard during the week of September 18 began with a half-filled house only partly attributable to the events of the preceding Tuesday.

Around the time Solal first visited America, in 1963, the forever staid Martin Williams got so heated that he closed his review alarmed that he might have written a “panegyric.” “I do not mean that,” he apologized, then cast about for a caveat—something about Solal not being a natural blues player. He closed with reference to “Solalian lyricism,” coining an adjective that has become so widespead in European jazzcrit that it sometimes gets a small s, though it refers less to lyricism than to a timeless fluency that transcends genre and idiom. Williams subsequently interviewed Solal for the Saturday Review. The pianist affirmed the influence of the bright, orchestral keyboard stylists—Tatum, Waller, Garner—before absorbing Powell, from whom, he conceded, he took more than from anyone else save Tatum. He said he knew little of classical music after Debussy, putting to rest assumptions of an au courant academic education—in fact, like Monk, another influence, he found his method largely through the grammar of jazz. He also noted that he had not heard Bill Evans’s records with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian (a frequent Solal drummer) until arriving in New York, underscoring what his 1960 trio sessions with Guy Pedersen and Daniel Humair prove—that he was striving for a triangular, equal-participation approach to the piano trio at the same time as Evans and Jamal.

Solal had been around. He was born in Algiers in 1927, and according to an old liner note was expelled from school in 1942 because of race laws (his father was Jewish). He turned to jazz after hearing Goodman, Waller, and Reinhardt, among others, and played piano, saxophone, and clarinet professionally, eventually realizing he would have to relocate to Paris to have a career. He made the move in 1950 and soon earned a reputation, appearing on Reinhardt’s last session in 1953, working with visiting American players, writing orchestra charts, and scoring New Wave films by Melville and Godard. His 1960 trio made a tremendous impression, as did his ability to spontaneously recompose familiar themes. Solal’s unaccompanied 1960 version of Tadd Dameron’s “The Squirrel,” for example, is a rigorous paradigm of virtuoso exultation kept in check by his uncanny control of form—just when you think the fingers will fly away, the gravity of the piece and his sense of proportion bring them home.

As of 1963, Solal was known here, if at all, for the movie Breathless and two enduring if little-remembered albums. In 1957, he had recorded with the New Orleans guru Sidney Bechet, at the older man’s request; their mutual give-and-take, shown to advantage in robust exchanges on “These Foolish Things,” proved that the generations could meet profitably at a time when they barely glanced at each other. Throughout, Solal shows originality, clarity, empathy, and a signal cleverness, as in the reharmonization of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” or a “Rose Room” solo that simply extends his comping behind an uncharacteristically overwrought Bechet. The other album documented a 1962 concert at Paris’s Salle Gaveau, beginning with a rhythmic deconstruction of “Jordu” and building tension with six knotty originals, including the dreamy ballad “Aigue Marine” (revived with greater radiance and polish in the 1979 version included in his invaluable out-of-print Radio France anthology, Live 1959/85), and “Nos Smoking,” with its long exposition—a crazy quilt of quick tempo adjustments, fleeting references that mate a silent comedy riff with bop changes—that caroms into an extraordinarily fast blues passage. The album was released here by Liberty (now owned by EMI, so a Blue Note reissue is in order), and it should have become a classic—it’s unlike anything else of the period—and established his stateside presence.

That didn’t happen. Over the past 38 years, Solal has performed at festivals in Chicago and Monterey, but has rarely appeared in New York—the Vanguard gig represented his first visit in two decades and his first club date since he hit the Hickory House in 1963. His records are often hard to find here, though a few have crossed the Atlantic, including the 1983 Soul Note, Bluesine, and the current series on Dreyfus: In & Out with Johnny Griffin; the stunning Just Friends with Motian and Gary Peacock, an ideal introduction; and the new Dodecaband Plays Ellington, which shows off his arranging skills at the helm of a band he has led since 1980. Solal’s writing, like his playing, never stands still. They are alike in other ways—the saxophone that skitters away from the theme might be a right-hand arpeggio; the high voicing of two soprano saxes might be a dissonant thumping in the treble and the trombone slur a bass-clef response. Occasional episodes are too intricate for their own good, but like they say about the weather in the plains, if you don’t like it, wait eight bars. Solal shows no interest in aping Ellington. He is attracted to tunes we know so well that they can flit in and out of view (along with odd quotes, like “Reveille” in “Satin Doll”), always centered in his broad variational dramas: How timely are those impending storm clouds at the start of “Caravan,” a 15-minute stream-of-consciousness desert song with who knows how many references to Solal’s years in Africa.

Still, the Dodecaband lacks the romping joy and surprise of his trio, which, with drummer Bill Stewart and bassist François Mouton, gave the Vanguard a palpable lift. Sticking to standards, he played a vivacious shell game with the themes, sometimes keeping them hidden until well into the piece, yet filling out the changes so comprehensively that the melody, when it did appear, seemed his only natural conclusion. Solal’s virtuosity is inescapable. I think the intellectual aspect that either draws your attention like steel filings to a magnet or leaves you on the outside is his devotion to good old theme-and-variations. Most jazz performances follow that dictate, but so often the improvisation abandons the theme that we tend to think of the result as head-and-solo, which is very different. Solal, like Monk or Rollins, is constantly playing with the piece under scrutiny. Obviously, you don’t have to know the song to find his inventions spellbinding—his original pieces are just as compelling. But you do need to know “The Song Is You,” “I Can’t Get Started,” and “Tea for Two” to keep up with the wit, caprice, mystery, and implacable sense of structure that informs every selection.

Even then, he will throw a wrench into the mix, usually to leaven the set, for example, a brief, faithful rendering of “La Vie en Rose,” in which the real variations were assigned Mouton, who has a neat trick of rapidly sliding a fretting finger down a string while plucking melody notes that seem to sparkle like a percussive piano arpeggio; or opening a number with Stewart playing buoyant triplets as prelude to “Round Midnight” (the source of several Solal triumphs, all strikingly different), treated as a waltz—a fast waltz at that. “What Is This Thing Called Love” and its shadow melody “Hot House” became a world of fragments while sustaining, measure for measure, the logic of a theorem. Using chords as a grounding point, he is as free in his movements as free jazz can be. His influences were assimilated so long ago that you would be hard-pressed to hear a touch of Tatum or Powell or Garner or Monk. What you do hear of them, beautifully transmuted, is a lineage—the whimsy, spark, and bemused craft of the inspired quick-change artist. Everyone around me was smiling.