Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Ahmad Jamal and The Roy Hargrove Quintet

Critic's picks

Ahmad Jamal

It's Magic

The Roy Hargrove Quintet


Nearly four decades of age ­separate piano giant Ahmad Jamal and trumpet stylist Roy Hargrove. But on two almost feverishly streamlined new albums, their grooves, if not their very jazz intellects, discover common ground.

Jamal, who turned 78 this month, plays like a giddy, boppish teen on It's Magic but displays the tough-knuckled tone of a prizefighter.

On Swahililand, a Jamal original that the pianist first recorded in 1974, the introductory rolls on piano are dynamic indeed. Then the more modal turns in ­Jamal's playing become almost symphonic. The rich tone, performance power and changeling spirit all echo McCoy Tyner, but then the music brightens and briefly settles as a solo of restless melodic grace glides over the thick Motherland groove established by Jamal's longtime touring band — bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad, augmented by veteran percussionist Manolo Badrena.

Jamal's stylistic vocabulary is as vast as ever on It's Magic. Although his band's attack is full of boppish drive, Jamal is something of a jazz alchemist. He briefly quotes The Beatles in the midst of a fiery piano break on the album-opening Dynamo, tosses Ned Washington's classic Wild Is the Wind into a medley with the Sesame Street relic Sing, and invests the title tune, an Oscar-nominated gem by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (from the 1948 film Romance on the High Seas), with a piano voice that sounds orchestral even without his band's subtle support.

Aside from the addition of Badrena, there is no uncharted territory on the album. Instead, it's the youthful cast to Jamal's playing that impresses. His intuitive solo, compositional and interpretive skills befit a jazz elder, but his tone and performance remain outrageously youthful.

For Hargrove, one of a pack of new traditionalists to emerge at the dawn of the '90s who hesitated for years before revealing their more contemporary leanings, Earfood is the sound of coming home. It's a bright but often understated return to ensemble cool, cut with his touring quintet. Hargrove applies the lyricism, if not the very groove, of more progressive bands. No, that doesn't mean the electric funk of Hargrove's band RH Factor directly intrudes on these sessions. But there is a knowing lyricism, especially to the ballads on Earfood, that probably comes from some of his stylistic globetrotting.

Brown, for example, flirts with post-bop before creating soulful dialogue between the trumpeter (especially in his muted solos) and pianist Gerald Clayton. Lou Marini's Starmaker further hushes the tone to suggest Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage with more sustained cool and romanticism. But the killer is Mr. Clean, which was recorded more than 30 years ago by Freddie Hubbard. The groove approaches funk, the piano becomes more strident and percussive, and Hargrove unleashes his most unabashedly vibrant solos.

Capping it all is a live version of Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home to Me, played as a gospel-tinged blast of soul and pop, with Hargrove and saxophonist Justin Robinson engaging in playful tag-team runs and boisterous unison leads.

Slap all of that on your plate, and you will discover quickly what a feast Earfood is.

Walter Tunis, Contributing Music Critic