Ahmad Jamal has been a leading jazz pianist for some time, although his commercial success before the release of The Awakening in 1970 wasn’t always taken seriously by critics. However the man with the “exquisite touch”, as Miles Davis once described him, showed all what he was truly capable of with this LP full of tension and release.
Jamal has an ability to conduct simple lines of melody into a kaleidoscope of suspense, which break suddenly into harmony like the first ray of sun around a mountaintop on a cold morning. Described as a “concept album for Jazz piano”, the trio pull you into comforting yet not always comfortable rhythms, as they move around within melodies and softly swerve around syncopations.
“A fine example of Jamal’s stately—and understated— elegance punctuated with doodles of whimsy”Michael J. Agovino, writing for Pitchfork magazine
Doodles of whimsy indeed. There are parts to this album that I can and have just listened to on repeat. The first break into melody and swing in The Awakening, the switch up of harmony in Dolphin Dance. All of these parts of the songs bring me joy, but the true joy comes in taking 40 minutes and 34 seconds to sit and enjoy this album in its entirety.
I was deciding which artist or label to cover next in the Jams for the Journey series, when I realised I was listening to the first track from this album for maybe the fourth time that day. Before noon. It was at that point I decided to give Ahmad Jamal the attention of mine he deserves. As a fan of hip hop for a long time, the hooks of Nas’s The World is Yours or Common’s Resurrection were familiar to me and as a producer I knew where the samples were from. But what I didn’t appreciate the first time I went to listen to this album was the dearth of piano lines that were clamouring to be heard. Now just as much as the first time, the melodies that spring from tension still give me shivers.
The title track, The Awakening is a good example of this tension and release. Starting as a joyful simple 4 note melody, falling and rising, it has the feel of a lazy afternoon that started with a run for the bus. For me this afternoon turns into a night, with dancing and gaiety still the main themes that spring from the speakers. Suddenly an injection of tension comes from the firing fingers of Jamal, as the twinkling tiles fall up and then down putting me in mind of an altercation or the threat of a fight. However this is soon enveloped by the harmonious melodies that seal the song and put the melody to bed, a comforting place to be after such a long evening that started with a run for the bus.
Many other tracks on this album follow a similar pattern of order out of chaos, but in a way that is neither repetitive or unmelodic. Interestingly Ahmad Jamal and co chose to play largely jazz standards on this album, however the places they take them are entirely new, prompting many critics at the time to describe The Awakening as a concept album. But in reality it is Ahmad Jamal doing Ahmad Jamal best; writing wonderful compositional pieces that are topped off with his exquisite touch on the keys. I Love Music is another fine example of this, with the melody recognisable but stretched and filled out with notes that feel like they don’t quite belong, and yet you wouldn’t hear it the same way without them. Like cardamom or cloves in a curry, I’m not sure of the flavours by themselves but without them the overall taste falls somewhat flat.
The bobbing basslines of Jamil Nasser also give great energy to the album, walking the tune to places while Jamal takes its hand and whirls it in another direction. The soft brushing of Frank Gant also helps to usher the sometimes encapsulatingly bombastic chords played by Jamal towards a more refined place. Patterns and Wave demonstrate this synchronicity between band members and the connection between these players is evident in the tightness and speed at which they change up the pace and style of their musical meanderings. All we can do is be taken by the hand and allow ourselves to be led through the landscape that is The Awakening.
Amongst all of this, for me highlights include hearing the snippet in Dolphin Dance which was used for hip hop artist Common’s Resurrection, as well as the tiny twinkle that Chaos in the CBD uses for his hook in Luxury Motivation that almost passes you by. It’s no wonder that Pete Rock loves mining for samples in the mighty mountain of Ahmad Jamal’s back catalogue but also in this LP in particular. Every song on this album has been sampled by an artist or producer, paying homage to the greatness that is created and expressed through the fingers of Ahmad Jamal.
Sometimes it feels like there are more than the three instrumentalists playing, the depth of sound reached is so fulfilling. Through his compositions Ahmad Jamal and co manage to transport you away to a place that winds around itself and you as you listen, pulling you into the rise and fall of the harmonies and textures they create. Until, before you know it, 40 minutes and 34 seconds have passed and you’re listening to the sound of the record spinning its infinite crackle and wondering what just happened.