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'Emerald City Nights' revisits jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal in a series from the 1960s

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, who's 92 now, has signed off on a new series of live recordings from a Seattle club he'd played in the 1960s. Two volumes are now out. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead prefers the peppy Volume 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "MINOR MOODS")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Ahmad Jamal, 1964. A decade earlier, the pianist led a popular trio with bass and guitar, which made dramatic use of dynamics, contrasts between loud and soft. They play lightly and politely, but punctuated with exclamatory gestures. The music was spry and clever and sometimes a little dainty. So Jamal traded in guitar for drums. They'd still tread lightly, but drums made those big change-ups bigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "KEEP ON KEEPING ON")

WHITEHEAD: Ahmad Jamal thought like a small group orchestrator in his solos as well. He'd get louder or softer, leaner or denser, breaking up brisk improvised lines with emphatic chords, even at quick tempos. This is "Squatty Roo."

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "SQUATTY ROO")

WHITEHEAD: Ahmad Jamal with drummer Chuck Lampkin and bassist Richard Evans from "Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse 1963-1964." It's the first of three newly excavated surveys of Jamal trios recorded in Seattle. Ahmad Jamal grew up in Pittsburgh, a wellspring of jazz pianists going back to Earl Hines and Mary Lou Williams. But Jamal's trio concepts came together while living in Chicago, and he can lay back behind the beat like one of the homegrown locals, sounding relaxed while staying busy. Jamil Nasser is on bass here and on most of the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "TANGERINE")

WHITEHEAD: The early 1960s was a tumultuous time in jazz, and Jamal kept up with some wide open modal harmony and expansive McCoy Tyner chords. He might also use small, fragmentary figures as building blocks like an avant garde pianist. For instance, midway through the modal romp "Bogota," he hits on a little descending run and teases it a bit before wandering away.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "BOGOTA")

WHITEHEAD: That little dipping phrase sounds like a throwaway till he picks it back up more than a minute later before dropping it again. But when Jamal circles back for a third go-round, drummer Chuck Lampkin propels it to center stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "BOGOTA")

WHITEHEAD: Ahmad Jamal plays a lot of piano on the first volume in his "Emerald City Nights" series of unheard 1960s music. He trots out bright tremolo chords and witty quotations from old tunes and other fleet-fingered pianists. The trio do a couple of waltzes, including a lilting "Lollipops And Roses." With tracks averaging eight or nine minutes, they stretch out, but don't overdo it. At Seattle's Penthouse, Jamal's trios came to play with muscle and subtlety and big ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "LOLLIPOPS AND ROSES")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse 1963 to '64," live recordings by Ahmad Jamal released for the first time. The new series "Kindred," about a woman in L.A. transported back in time to a pre-Civil War plantation, is adapted from a novel by the pioneering Black feminist science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll listen back to an interview with Butler from our archive. We'll also feature an interview from our archive with Marijane Meaker, a pioneering writer of lesbian fiction in the 1950s. She also wrote a memoir about her two-year relationship with novelist Patricia Highsmith, author of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Strangers On A Train," which were adapted into films. Meaker died last month. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.