August 2003

Ahmad Jamal - In Search of...Momentum
Birdology/Dreyfus Jazz FDM 36644-2
Released: 2003

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Hiromi - Another Mind
Telarc CD-83558
Released: 2003

Musical Performance **1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***

by Joseph Taylor

At age 72, his beard and hair now white, Ahmad Jamal has the impressive bearing of a diplomat. At a point in his career where he could probably coast with his reputation secure, he turns in a recording so energetic and bracing that a musician a third his age would be proud to claim it. In Search of...Momentum is Jamal’s fourth disc for the French jazz label Birdology, an imprint of Dreyfus Records. His two previous studio recordings for them featured horns, but on this disc he returns to the trio format that made him so popular during the late '50s and early '60s.

Critics at the time tended to undervalue Jamal’s recordings for Argo Records (several of them are currently available as Cross Country Tour 1958-1961 [GRP 18132]), in part because they sold so well, but also because they were so accessible. Jamal never lost sight of melody, and he used a deceptively light touch. Like the playing of Erroll Garner, another Pittsburgh native, Jamal’s playing had an air of easy virtuosity. Careful listening revealed a playful rhythmic sense and a unique understanding of how economy and space created drama and tension. Jamal combined long, impressive melody runs with passages where he held back and played a note or phrase only here and there, highlighting a particular rhythmic or harmonic aspect of a tune.

Jamal has retained his jaunty melodic ear, but he’s more rhythmically insistent on In Search of...Momentum. He’ll sometimes come down hard on a chord to emphasize a beat or to answer a counterpoint by the sublime Idris Muhammad, who has played drums on all his Dreyfus recordings. On "Island Fever," Jamal begins by playing the melody gently, but soon punctuates a beat here and there with his left hand. He plays with the dynamics of the tune, following a series of heavy chords with a passage where he quietly coaxes the melody from the keys. At one point, he plays a blurry series of quick notes that seem to pull apart his performance without losing track of it.

For In Search of...Momentum, Jamal has chosen a program of his own compositions, a Monty Alexander tune, and three standards. His broad knowledge of jazz-piano history and his command of the instrument inform every track. He begins rhythmically prodding "Where Are You" from the beginning, returning to the original melody occasionally before branching off into long passages where he employs everything from swing-era stylings to avant-garde dissonance to explore the possibilities suggested in the tune. Jamal has played some of this material before, such as "I’ve Never Been In Love Before," but he discovers new things even in songs he’s recorded and played many times.

The remarkable thing about every selection on In Search of...Momentum is the complete lack of caution or hesitation from these three players and their refusal to fall back on clichés. Bassist James Cammack plays with a joyful bounce; his solo on the title track is one of brightest moments on the disc. He has a long history with Jamal, and his heavy attack and throbbing sound keep things locked down. Idris Muhammad plays with keen precision, alert to the needs of the other two players yet loose enough to add his own witty responses to Jamal’s statements. Every track on In Search of...Momentum is suffused with the jubilance of three musicians who are confident of themselves and each other and feel free to follow inspiration wherever it takes them.

The very clean and immediate recording was done live in the studio through a TL Audio vacuum tube console. It has a notably deep soundstage, and Jamal’s piano rings out brilliantly -- you can hear the strings resonating inside the instrument. I don’t know if the tube console is responsible for the great sound or if engineer Paul Orofino simply knows how to correctly place microphones (a lost art, I sometimes suspect). I do know that the quality of the recording will matter less to you than the fire and brilliance of these performances.

Jamal and bass player/arranger Richard Evans produced Hiromi Uehara’s debut disc, Another Mind. The 24-year-old graduated from Berklee School of Music in May, and she demonstrates some impressive chops on her first outing. Any of the pleasures to be enjoyed from the disc come from hearing some of the truly astonishing things she can play. She shows the influence of pianists she admires, especially Oscar Peterson and Jamal, and there are some dazzling and beautiful passages on the disc.

Unfortunately, Hiromi (she refers to herself by her first name only) goes out of her way to be innovative, attempting to synthesize jazz, classical, and rock, and she ends up covering old ground. Of the two discs reviewed here, it’s the older musician’s that seems cutting-edge. The music on Another Mind feels anachronistic, in part because the musicians accompanying Hiromi sound as if they’d just wandered in from a mid-'70s Return to Forever session. The bassists, Mitch Cohn and, on two tracks, Anthony Jackson, play in the Stanley Clarke style of fluid bombast, and drummer Dave Dicenso is clearly drawn to the Sturm und Drang of '70s fusion drummers.

It’s not that these musicians are not capable players. The problem is that they don’t know when to keep their skills in check so they don’t overshadow the leader or the composition. "Joy," an understated, gospel-tinged tune, is nearly ruined by Hiromi’s heavy-handed accompanists (her own playing there is restrained and subtle). In fairness, many of the tunes Hiromi writes seem to demand the style of playing her musicians provide. Too much of the disc is built upon the '70s fusion values of speed and volume -- especially speed. It feels hurried, and it made me feel rushed when I was listening to it.

While Hiromi plays some pretty melodies when she’s improvising, as a composer she writes tunes that sound too familiar. "Summer Rain" echoes a thousand other smooth jazz recordings, and "Double Personality," which begins promisingly, soon descends into a series of fusion riffs (every time guitarist Dave Fiucznski soloed I found myself honestly stunned that anyone still plays like that).

The recording shows Telarc’s usual attention to recording details, which it describes in the liner notes to Another Mind. The promotional material stresses Hiromi’s innovations, and it pushes a little too hard. Hiromi Uehara will probably make a great disc someday soon, but she’ll need to write music that’s more memorable and slow things down. She might want to listen to and learn from Mr. Jamal’s disc.