WHEN I first heard the Muslim names and beautiful lucid notes of these two extraordinary musicians some 55 years ago — one a pianist, the other a saxophonist — I had no idea that they were black Americans, let alone jazz virtuosi; one born in the steel city of Pittsburgh in 1930, the other with his boyhood and youth in the streets of the motor city Detroit, having been born in Chattanooga, Tennessee a full decade before.
Ahmad Jamal and Yusef Lateef were names that fascinated me. I remember sitting in my friend’s front room after school in 1959, listening to extended-play vinyl records on his proud Dansette record player as they fell onto his turntable and thinking: “Why did these Americans have names like this? They’re not from Egypt or Algeria?”
And yet all these years later, in 2012 when this concert was recorded, they were still playing, in a world cursed by Islamophobia, after two lifetimes of music which had pioneered the new glories of cosmopolitan music within a jazz rubric.
Lateef’s early albums, like Other Sounds (1957), Eastern Sounds (1961) or The Centaur and the Phoenix (1960), his alto and tenor saxophones, flute, bassoon and oboe, brought a complex of musics from Asia, the Americas, Africa and Europe into one sonic vision. Or Jamal, whose use of space and silence so impressed Miles Davis, gave his music a preciously unique way of achieving sound.
At the Paris Olympia in June 2012, these two veteran jazz giants (Jamal 81, Lateef 91) played together, with Jamal’s quartet of Chicago-born basist Reginald Veal, and two outstanding drummers, one from New Orleans, Herlin Riley, and the other the Puerto Rican master Manolo Badrena, ex-bandsman of Weather Report Joni Mitchell and the Rolling Stones, signalling Jamal’s lifelong love of the Latin American groove.
The first CD is all Jamal and the trio play a succession of tunes, which must rock them in their sleep, they know them so intimately. Jamal’s Autumn Rain begins the proceedings after the two drummers strike their mettle, pouring Caribbean waters into the centre of Jamal’s pianism.
Blue Moon launches him into the American songbook, as do Laura — played with a chirpy balladic tenderness — and one for Sammy Davis Jr, This is the Life.
As for his own compositions, Morning Mist impresses most, with Veal’s moaning, twanging, unaccompanied bass commencement powerful in itself in this sound portrait of a burgeoning morning, and Jamal’s lucid and bold notes gradually dissolving the vapourous curtain.
The second CD is Lateef’s final live recording; he died in December 2013.
Jamal sits out for the 14 minutes of Exatogi, while the drummers find an eternal groove beside Lateef, blowing his tenor free in short snatches of breathy notes as Badrena’s Puerto Rican pulse finds a true companero.
Lateef picks up his flute, chants and whistles a distant bird-song while the waves of rhythm are unceasing.
Jamal returns for Masara, playing a riff beneath Lateef’s keening flute, full of eastern sounds as in his early recording days, and Jamal’s piano ambles naturally into the blues, the territory of both these Americans with nearly two centuries of music between them, music which began with such notes and themes like Trouble in Mind, which Lateef sings from the earth of his ancestors and Jamal plays from the gospel of history. It segues directly into the testifying message also sung by Lateef, Brother Hold Your Light.
The concert ends with an encore of Blue Moon and Jamal playing the quasi-Latin tune Poinciana, which had been released as a single from his epochal live performance album At The Pershing in January 1958, the year before I first heard him playing it hard on my friend Bill’s Dansette in Romford during a late afternoon after school. And he’s still playing it.
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