Jazz legend reaches new creative peak at age 80

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jay-Z, Nas, Gang Starr and Common share this in common: They’ve all sampled recordings by jazz legend Ahmad Jamal, who in his unassuming manner has had a major impact on the musical world since he formed his first trio nearly six decades ago.

Jamal’s website has links to more than 40 hip-hop tracks that sample his music. These include such seminal 1990s recordings as De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High,” which samples Jamal’s “Swahililand,” and Nas’ “The World Is Yours,” which uses the pianist’s “I Love Music.”

“You could say Ahmad Jamal is the grandfather of hip-hop … All the hip-hop beats were in jazz before there was actually hip-hop,” said jazz pianist Robert Glasper, who is music director of Mos Def’s big band and has worked with Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, Maxwell and Common.

But while Jamal said it’s “flattering” that rap stars have used his music, it hasn’t always been to his advantage.

“They sample this, they sample that. … There’s some good in some of these forms that are out there and some bad. You have to be sensible enough to recognize the good and discard the bad,” said Jamal. “What’s good is getting paid for some of this stuff. And that good doesn’t happen to Mr. Jamal very often. I could make a career chasing all this money but I’m not going to do it.”

Jamal is instead focused on chasing the music — his way. At 80, he’s enjoying a new creative peak. He began the year by releasing the CD “A Quiet Time”; he also has spent a good part of 2010 on the concert circuit, and he’s the subject of a retrospective, multidisc box set.

“I’m extremely busy doing many, many things. … But I’m trying to devote time to what I enjoy most, and this is writing and practicing the piano,” he said from his home in rural western Massachusetts. “I want to know what the 88 keys are about after all these years of sitting there. … I’m discovering things every day and that’s why I want the time to do that. I don’t want to be tied up with all these many distractions — the iPods, the MP3s and the computers.

“I’m repositioning myself, trying to get away from all these distractions and enjoy my life. And I enjoy my life when I can discover new things spiritually first and socially, musically, financially and physically.”

It’s Jamal’s pioneering spirit that has made him a giant in jazz circles and beyond. Pianists from McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to newer stars like Eric Reed, Jacky Terrasson and Japan’s Hiromi (whose debut CD was produced by Jamal) have all cited him as a major inspiration.

Pianist Keith Jarrett recalled the fascination he felt when he first heard the 1958 album “Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal.”

“It’s the use of space in a swinging context that I think we all felt had never been achieved quite like that before,” said Jarrett. “I think this was also what Miles loved about Ahmad.”

Miles Davis sent his band members to hear Jamal’s trio before he recorded his own landmark 1959 album “Kind of Blue.” The trumpeter also borrowed freely from Jamal’s repertoire — both obscure standards like “Surrey With The Fringe on Top” and original tunes like “Ahmad’s Blues” and “New Rhumba.” Davis wrote in his autobiography: “When people say Jamal influenced me a lot, they’re right.”

But Jamal’s contributions often have gone overlooked. He wasn’t mentioned in either of the recent films chronicling the rise of Chess Records — “Cadillac Records” and “Who Do You Love” — even though his recordings launched the Chicago label’s Argo jazz subsidiary.

“I don’t care, that’s their omission, not mine, but I was certainly a central figure at Chess Records for years,” said Jamal. “Chess was started basically with me, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.”

His fellow Chess artists have either died or are just reprising past hits. But Jamal is still forging new musical ground.

“I try to do that which motivates me and keeps me spirited and keeps life interesting,” he said. “A dull life is a terrible thing.”

At the Newport Jazz Festival this summer, Jamal conducted his quartet from the piano bench, using hand signals like a quarterback to indicate sudden changes in tempo or volume.

“Imagine Daniel Barenboim doing the piano concerto and conducting the orchestra at the same time,” said Jamal’s longtime bassist James Cammack. “Ahmad’s musical approach is spontaneous composition.”

Jamal’s recent album, “A Quiet Time,” has him augmenting his trio with percussionist Manolo Badrena to add more colors. Jamal and Dizzy Gillespie share credit for being the first jazz musicians to use Latin percussionists in their combos in the 1950s.

Apart from the ballad “I Hear a Rhapsody” and jazz pianist Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly,” the rest of the tracks are his own compositions, including “Paris After Dark,” ‘’Flight to Russia,” and “After JALC (Jazz at Lincoln Center).”

Jamal has always preferred to look ahead rather than revisit his past. When asked what’s his favorite record, Jamal responded, “The next one, because it will be reflecting the sum total of my life.”

Still, he gave approval for Mosaic Records to release a nine-CD box set, “The Complete Ahmad Jamal Argo Sessions 1956-62.” Producer Michael Cuscuna persuaded Jamal to include 23 previously unissued tracks on the set, released over the summer.

Cuscuna says Jamal’s recordings with New Orleans drummer Vernel Fournier and classically trained bassist Israel Crosby set the standard for the modern jazz piano trio.

“They were one of the great cooperative ensembles that created the new language of modern jazz after bebop … and were clearly as influential as any of the Mount Rushmore people of the ‘50s — Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis.”

The collection includes the 1958 LP “At the Pershing: But Not For Me,” one of the era’s iconic jazz recordings that stayed on the pop charts for nearly two years. Recorded on location at a Chicago night club, its breakout hit single was the hypnotic “Poinciana,” an obscure standard that became his signature song.

As Jamal reflects on his long career, spanning six decades, he still looks to projects he hopes to accomplish. To that end, he talks of getting rid of all the “baggage” he’s accumulated.

“I’m trying to get rid of as much baggage as I can so I can enjoy the time I have left on this earth, because you don’t ever have enough time to finish all. Nobody has enough time to finish all the projects they have in their mind, but you can reach a happy medium,” he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.