The concept of the Supergroup experienced its rise and fall in rock music somewhere between the end of the flower-power sixties and the post-punk eighties. In jazz, however, the proposition seems as viable and prevalent as ever, with the star-laden groups of Wayne Shorter and Keith Jarrett coming to mind as recent and highly visible examples of this trend. Another entrant, a good deal less-hyped but no less worthy, is the stellar trio of Ahmad Jamal, Idris Muhammad and James Cammack; their ninety-minute concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall was a nonpareil display of jazz at its most dynamic and expressive.
Ahmad Jamal isn’t generally considered a member of jazz’s avant garde wing. The pianist works with a lot of material from the standard repertoire, and his orientation as an original composer seems more traditionally melodic rather than experimental in nature. That said, his improvisational approach is as fiercely deconstructionist as just about anyone’s. Not unlike the late Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal is a unique enough stylist as to constitute a school all his own.
Jamal led bassist Cammack and drummer Muhammad through a series of dizzying excursions through different and sometimes clashing moods, tempi and harmonies. Jamal & Co. seemed to delight in establishing a gentle, lilting melody or a swinging bop motive only to suddenly pull the carpet out from under it and venture boldly into free territory. Having taken these themes and either broken them down or stretched them out past recognition, they would return to them just as abruptly and joyously.
James Cammack and Idris Muhammad proved a particularly adept pair of accompanists for the seventy-five year-old great. Jamal’s longtime bass player, Cammack, displayed a good logical sense during his handful of solo features, and he rolled admirably with all the changes he was dealt. Unfortunately, his instrument sometimes got lost in the mix on the occasions when Jamal dipped into his famous left-handed technique and Muhammad countered heavily on the bass drum and floor toms. As for Idris Muhammad, the dapper drummer seems an ideal foil for Jamal and his orchestral sense, bringing a melodic flair to his cymbal work as well as a high degree of rhythmic flexibility. Like Jamal, his dynamic sense seemed both intuitive and well-honed through his decades of performing.
While Ahmad Jamal can be honestly called a living legend, the double-edged sword of an artist’s having attained that status is that it can lead to them being taken for granted. With Jamal having already achieved greatness and hung on so steadily for so long, one may be lulled into thinking they know what to expect. The reality of the Ahmad Jamal Trio with James Cammack and Idris Muhammad, however, is one of continual surprise and invention. There are other veteran ensembles playing jazz at a high level, including a few with somewhat sexier names than this one. The best of these compare favorably with Jamal’s group, but you’d have to look far and wide to find one that surpasses it.