Jazz critics, like pollsters and pundits, are often wrong. When in 1958 a relatively unknown twenty-eight-year-old pianist named Ahmad Jamal had a hit tune named "Poinciana" that stayed on the top-ten charts for weeks and weeks, he was dismissed as superficial and ephemeral. Half a century later, most of his detractors are gone, but Jamal is still going strong.

Born in Pittsburgh, he studied piano at an early age, and after a short period of touring he settled in Chicago, where at age twenty he founded his first jazz trio. He has stayed a leader ever since, and except for the rare orchestral gig or hosting a visiting soloist, has worked only with his own groups. The first trio followed the then fashionable example of Nat King Cole, consisting of piano, bass, and guitar. He soon replaced the guitarist with a drummer, and by 1958 he had the perfect combo, in tandem with two equally talented musicians, bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier, and a permanent job at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago.

Detractors aside, this was an extremely popular group. Jamal had developed a modern jazz approach to the piano that differed from the prevailing bop style, which drew mainly from the example of Bud Powell. Powell concentrated on fluid right hand improvisations that were derived from saxophone or trumpet lines, with sporadic rhythmic jabs from the left hand, consisting of reduced two- or three-note chords. Jamal's approach was more pianistic: he played with both hands, using complex, highly colorful, constantly changing voicings, and his lines were often sparse, leaving space for the other members of the trio. Most important, in contrast to the flowing, often predictable bop flow, Jamal varied his rhythms, creating tension and resolution in a dramatic manner.

Although Jamal is one of the truly original stylists in modern jazz, his historical role is always underestimated by the music's establishment. Looking back on his long career, however, one has to be impressed by his accomplishments. It is now acknowledged that one of his earliest recordings, "Pavanne," was the source for two cornerstones of modal jazz in the 1960s — Miles Davis's "So What" and the related John Coltrane tune "Impressions." Some have traced elements of funk back to Jamal's early work as well.

After all these years, Jamal continues to refine his trio concept, relying on long-term relationships with other players. Drummer Idris Muhammad has been with him for a decade, and bassist James Cammack for more than twenty years. Jamal still plays "Poinciana," but his playing has evolved; he now favors lavish introductions that contrast with his often-sparse theme statements, and his attack now seems stronger and more dramatic. He brings his trio to Hill Auditorium on Saturday, February 16.

[Review published February 2008]