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Remembering pianist and NEA Jazz Master Ahmad Jamal

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Pianist Ahmad Jamal died on April 16 at age 92. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, broke through with his small-group music in Chicago in the 1950s and recorded scores of records through 2016, a 65-year recording career. Here's our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, with a look back on Jamal's career.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL TRIO'S "THE SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Ahmad Jamal's first recording, "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top," Chicago, 1951. The pianist's reputation had its ups and downs over the years. Early on, some folks dismissed that trio for making fussy, glorified cocktail music. Nowadays, we praise Jamal's economy and dramatic shifts in density and volume. Miles Davis testified to Jamal's influence on his own understatement and use of space and silence. Miles also picked up on the pianist's way of tweaking a tune's form with little interludes and extensions. That stuff could make Ahmad Jamal's music sound a little fussy. He heard his trios as miniature orchestras.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL TRIO'S "SLAUGHTER ON 10TH AVENUE")

WHITEHEAD: "Slaughter On 10th Avenue," 1955. Ahmad Jamal's next phase won him wider acclaim. He swapped out Ray Crawford's guitar for drums in a more conventional lineup. A 1958 live album recorded in Chicago's Pershing Hotel lounge yielded his hit version of the 1936 Latin tune "Poinciana." It was Jamal's bread-and-butter song ever after and a lifesaver for the Argo label and its parent, Chess Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "POINCIANA")

WHITEHEAD: With newfound success, Ahmad Jamal opened his own Chicago club. But as a devout Muslim, he didn't sell alcohol, and the place soon folded. He kept a lower profile for a few years. But some recently unearthed mid-'60s recordings from Seattle confirm his old virtues were intact. The dramatic turnabouts and sudden big gestures, playful quotations from other tunes and a powerful sense of swing.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "ALL OF YOU")

WHITEHEAD: In the late 1960s, Ahmad Jamal's reputation again began to wane as he made albums with choirs, strings and electric piano. One of the first jazz concerts I ever saw, circa 1973, remains one of the oddest. For the first set, Jamal played his current single, the theme from "MASH," for 45 minutes. The second set, he did it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "THEME FROM MASH")

WHITEHEAD: In the 1980s when digital recording and compact discs came in, Ahmad Jamal, like other jazz greats, rerecorded and updated a few old favorites.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "THEME FROM MASH")

WHITEHEAD: Miles Davis, in his 1989 autobiography, made much of Ahmad Jamal's positive influence. And in the 90s, the pianist's fortunes took a permanent upswing. The NEA declared him a jazz master in 1994, and he worked and recorded steadily. By choice, he only played with his own combos. But now, on rare occasions, a saxophonist might guest in concert. Finally, we could hear Jamal backing a horn player while sounding pretty much the way he does out front. Here he is with George Coleman in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES")

WHITEHEAD: Ahmad Jamal didn't take it easy. In later years, if anything, his music got funkier and more expansive, his piano playing more two-fisted, the loud parts more boisterous. Taking the long view, we can hear Jamal in the lineage of great Pittsburgh jazz pianists alongside Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Sonny Clark and others. Maybe it was the iron in the water. Ahmed Jamal's career reminds us there's no one way to play jazz. He showed us a few of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "BACK TO THE FUTURE")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and the Audio Beat.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be doula Vicki Bloom, who provides support for people during childbirth, abortion and miscarriage. She focuses on women who are poor or from marginalized communities. She's been doing this work in New York City since 2010. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.