AHMAD JAMAL — Jamal at the Penthouse (review)

AHMAD JAMAL — Jamal at the Penthouse album cover Album · 1959 · Pop/Art Song/Folk Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
js
When Ahmad Jamal hit the jazz scene he represented a whole new fresh approach to the piano. Jamal championed a light style based more on clever nuances and the unexpected, rather than the more virtuoso powerhouse traditions of Art Tatum and his many followers. Critics didn’t take to Ahmad right away as they saw his lighter approach being more akin to lounge and pop pianists rather than a serious jazz musician. Undaunted, Jamal carried forward with his new style and picked up some serious admirers along the way, including Miles Davis who encouraged his pianists to play more like Jamal. After releasing a couple excellent jazz albums, Jamal seemed to almost taunt his critics by veering more into pop territory when he recorded “Jamal at the Penthouse”, with his old friend Joeseph Kennedy supplying string arrangements. String arrangements are usually seen as a death blow to the hardcore jazz fan, consider all the grief Parker received for going that route, and although “Penthouse” may not be a serious jazz album, it is an excellent artsy semi-pop album that should appeal to fans of exotic lounge music and creative ambience.

The first side of “Penthouse” centers around four popular tunes that feature Kennedy’s strings and Jamal’s always witty fills. Kennedy proves to be a good match for Jamal as his arrangements have a similar light-hearted wit and casual nuance. These tunes on side one are nice, but things get more interesting on side two when Jamal opens with a couple originals that display his strengths as a composer. These compositions are unique enough that it is hard to find a comparison except possibly the equally original work of Herbie Nichols. Another possible description would be a combination of Ravel, George Shearing, Martin Denny and the quirkiness of Stravinsky. Two more pop tunes follow these openers and the album closes with another great original, this time composed by Jamal and Kennedy together.

Overall this is a good album for collectors of artsy pop, but the three Jamal originals definitely stand out above the other pop tunes, making this an album that most Jamal fans will want to own after they pick up his more essential releases. Also, like most mood albums from that era, it comes with a beautiful album cover.
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