As he takes the stage you could be forgiven for thinking that Ahmad Jamal is a man in his 60s. Smartly dressed in a collarless grey suit, he looks remarkably well for a man of his age. What’s his secret? Perhaps it’s the fact that at 83 years of age Jamal has never let up, still touring and having already released two albums this decade.
Blue Moon (2012) and Saturday Morning (2013) provide much of this evening’s repertoire, but the opening piece is a lesser-known number called ‘Baalbek’ – named after a town in the Lebanon where Jamal once recorded a live concert for release on DVD. This piece provides a sort of template for the first half of the set: a steady pace with reined-in percussion as Herlin Riley focuses on delicate rim shots and cymbal work and lets the James Cammack’s bass playing provide the main pulse of the song.
The title track from Saturday Morning brings welcome melodic relief from what is a somewhat monotonous and overlong opener, but still Jamal’s improvised flourishes seem to be held back and disjointed. In between these intermittent phrases, Jamal conducts the ensemble, casually pointing out moments for each member to take control. The first half of the set closes out with ‘Blue Moon’, its melody fragmented and hidden beneath the complex rhythmical layers laid down by Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena.
If the first part of the performance is somewhat staid and restrained, then the second half is immediate and explosive as the whole band kick back in with the upbeat, salsa-infused ‘Back to the Future’. Elements of New Orleans jazz are interspersed with Afro-Cuban rhythms as Jamal shows us he’s still got the raw skills and dexterity of a man half his age. It’s as if the introspective first half of the show was all a ruse to lull us into indifference before beginning this all out assault on the senses, Jamal really getting to show us his chops on a downbeat piano number with just the bass backing him while the rest of the band temporarily falls out. Virtuosic and unimpeded, this is a complete change from the disjointed and spasmodic performance of what has come earlier.
The show never lets up from here on in and the band close out with a series of upbeat numbers, including ‘One’ with its hip-hop tinged beat, which really gets the crowd going as each member gets to unwind with full-on, crowd-pleasing solos. As the crowd finally rise again in applause, the mediocrity of the first half of the show is long forgotten and there is a great sense of having watched a truly breathtaking jazz gig. This is one of only five dates that this legendary musician will play on his European tour and I think everybody knows what an honour it was to behold.