Jazz Notes

The Awakening

Dabblin’ and Samplin’

The first (or second) in a series commenting on jazz albums I happen to enjoy. About as casual a listener as can be, I know nothing about jazz: couldn’t tell you jack about style other than what’s immediately obvious, wouldn’t understand theory even if I was handed a book, can’t imagine how to begin parsing through contemporary artists when I’m still mired in bop albums from the 50’s and 60’s. Just know when I do or don’t like something, try to make sense of it through my real-life encounters rather than abstract musing.

AHMAD JAMAL – The Awakening (Impulse! ’70): Last winter I was partial to starting my mornings with Miles Davis’s Relaxin’, a title apropos to my disposition of flipping through notes for class or a good book with a fresh pot of coffee. I’d spend the first few hours of the day like this; a few cups of joe, a few hours of jazz, a few chapters or short stories. And I didn’t always go for Relaxin’; I spent time with The Unique Thelonious Monk and, when I was first discovering this world, the seminal Kind of Blue. After jazzin’ it I’d move on to whatever new releases were on my agenda, eventually settling down in late afternoon to pop in something from my library or scuttling back to records of yesteryear. For a short while I was exploring early 90’s hip-hop with the guidance of my roommate, who shepherded me toward the likes of Nas (who I latched onto) and Ice Cube (who I despised). Illmatic proved most interesting of the era to me, an interest not in line with the accolades showered upon it by historians who extol it as among the most important hip-hop albums in existence, but sparked in light of the sampling. A relief from the dominant high-whining synths Dre deployed with N.W.A., on The Chronic, or in his horrid duet with Ice Cube, Nas’s producers opted for East Coast, New York City jazz.

Occasionally I’ll hear a sample from a hip-hop track that’s more interesting to me than whatever the MC has to say. Whenever I go and search for that sample I’m sometimes let down—the repetitive riff present on Black Milk’s “Deadly Medley” appears only once and for a few seconds on Blackrock’s “Yeah Yeah,” a funky piece for certain but not what I had anticipated. When I traced Nas’s “The World is Yours” back to Ahmad Jamal’s “I Love Music,” no such thing happened. Sure, sure, I had to listen carefully the first few times to trace which five or six seconds producer Pete Rock had carved out for Nas sample, but the rest of the song, hell, the rest of the album was far more captivating.

A piano virtuoso more well-known for his arguably more accomplished Chamber Music of the New Jazz and Live at the Pershing, Jamal has slipped through the cracks during the decades, cutting the masterful The Awakening in 1970 and never quite matching it since. By the time this gem dropped early in the year, he’d already influenced Miles Davis’s playing, inadvertently altering the course of jazz and popular music as a whole. And by 1970 jazz was far out of style (so far as I can tell), and its evolution hence has continued though without the substantial impact or importance it had decades prior. Further, there’s nothing immediately remarkable about The Awakening, only forty minutes long with seven cuts, five of them covers. And since it’s a trio, beyond the piano there’s only the soft rat-a-tat of Frank Gant’s drums and Jamil Nasser’s running bass plucks. No soothing trumpet or conversely bombastic sax and trombone blasts, qualities I’d become accustomed to with Miles. Besides, who could top Monk’s piano work?

What’s stunning is that in such a subdued atmosphere, Jamal’s stalwart piano punching penetrates and persuades the rhythms Gant and Nasser adopt. The discordant harmonies he concocts never sound ugly, never sound out of place with Nasser’s understated bass line. This is truer of “I Love Music” than any other cut, where Jamal refuses to conform to any conventional rhythm or melody even when he’s going solo. Better yet, his chops aren’t conflated, staying big and bold without unnecessary self-indulgent parades. I know, I know; that’s his job as the leader, but what’s the harm in giving credit where credit is due? A few months later Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew would drop and alter the face of jazz, leaving The Awakening to be seen as some sort of relic of eras gone by. And with the wave of puzzling and often hackneyed jazz fusion becoming more and more ridiculous, Jamal was an old soul, a forty-year-old pianist echoing old habits while pushing it forward with swelling embellishments instead of pursuing radical reaction.

So now I’m keen to start the day with this album, not for the tongue-in-cheek mention of waking up to The Awakening, but for its promise of enlightenment. Nas continued to sample Jamal, and he’s not the only one. Common, Madlib, Prince Paul, Ice-T, Atmosphere, KRS-One, and too many others to count have dabbled with Jamal’s output. And it’s this album that receives so much attention from hip-hop artists, where I found at least five of its songs prominently featured in a slew of songs. Passing the torch, it seems, illuminating the present with a part of the past.

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