A look at the legendary jazz pianist's interpretations of Steely Dan, Dusty Springfield, and Foster Sylvers.
After taking up piano at age three, renowned bandleader, composer, and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal put out his debut record Ahmad Jamal Plays (later re-released as Chamber Music of the New Jazz) in 1955. He has since released 12 LPs with the Ahmad Jamal Trio and 72 solo albums - including the celebrated 2019 effort Ballades.
Jamal’s name is also well known in the world of rap music. Common, Nas, De La Soul, Jay-Z, and countless others have crafted classics by using his songs as a sample source.
With so many albums to choose from, one could spend a very long time immersing themselves in music by Ahmad Jamal. Today I want to narrow the focus a bit and take a look at his cover songs.
In 1974 Jamal released Jamalca on 20th Century Records. This all-cover album is currently unavailable on streaming and unknown to a many modern listeners, which is a shame. The project boasts heavy use of strings, a mix of Jamal on Fender Rhodes and traditional piano, and beautiful background vocals by Marilyn Haywood, Vivian Haywood, and Morra Stewart. Soul vocalist Chuck Colbert - who earned himself a slew of writing and arrangement credits during his career - also sang on the record while Dorothy Ashby and Ramsey Lewis collaborator Richard Evans provided arrangement and bass.
The cover version of Foster Sylvers’ “Misdemeanor” is one of several standout moments on the album. A stirring orchestral arrangement at the opening of the track sounds incredible while Jamal’s range on the Fender Rhodes is on full display. The song also finds an effective balance of taking some pretty dramatic departures from the original before bringing it back to the melody of the hook. If you enjoy this cut, chances are you’ll be a fan of Jamalca as a whole.
“Black Cow” from Jamal’s 1979 release One is also a winner. Serving as the leadoff track on the b-side of the vinyl, this interpretation of Steely Dan features Jamal on the Clavinet while Steve Bowling is credited with handling duties on the Fender Rhodes. The song is further aided by accomplished vocalists Eloise Laws, Stephanie Spruill, and Virginia Ayers, resulting in a breezy and immersive reimagining of a classic. Though One is not considered among his many classic albums, this song and several others make the project well worth tracking down. Like Jamalca, it is not available on streaming as of yet.
Last but not least is the beautiful, upbeat cover Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” from the 1968 release Tranquility. Composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Springfield’s version was featured in the 1967 James Bond parody Casino Royale. In the 54 years since its initial release close to 170 artists have covered the tune, including The Delfonics, Isaac Hayes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Nina Simone.
Drummer and Ahmad Jamal Trio member Frank Gant really shines on this one, providing remarkably crisp, clear, and quick drum hits that give the opening of the track a breakbeat kind of a feel. Frequent Jamal collaborator Jamil Sulieman’s handiwork is also impressive, as his heavy hits of bass on the opening of the song make you feel the composition on a deeper level. Ahmad Jamal is of course masterful on the piano, demonstrating an ability to shine as an individual musician while fitting perfectly within the ensemble as a whole.
In the end, listening to his Ahmad Jamal’s work is perhaps the best way to fully grasp his artistic accomplishments and influence over modern music. From covers to originals, he truly is a remarkable, one of a kind talent.
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