Ahmad Jamal’s early albums for Argo were some of the best selling jazz records of the late 50s and early 60s, which is why they are often found in used bins today. Unfortunately, they were also some of the most popular albums of the era, so they’re often found in pretty worn shape. A nice copy of But Not For Me: Jamal at the Pershing is essential to any collection of jazz Lps, largely for his extended interpretation of “Poinciana.” His use of block chords and open space were influential on the developing cool jazz movement, especially as heard in the first Miles Davis Quintet over several highly praised albums for Prestige and Columbia.
Jamal’s career in jazz is interesting because after adopting a piano-bass-percussion trio form, he rarely recorded in other settings. He did perform on electric pianos periodically, as for instance on Freeflight, an excellent live album recorded in 1972 on which he performs “Poinciana” on a fender rhodes. He has, on occasion, recorded with larger groups — in fact, his most recent album featured Yusef Lateef (and may have been the last recording of the ninety-two year old multi-instrumentalist).
There are about twenty albums in Jamal’s catalog for Chess and its jazz subsidiaries (Argo and Cadet), most of which have been poorly represented in the digital age despite their success in the sixties. A 2014 series called The Complete Collection compiled the first dozen or so, but drew the recordings from vinyl drops rather than the original master tapes themselves, much to the frustration of audiophiles. Our favorite of his early albums, Naked City Theme, has only seen one CD reissue, an import which is presently out of print.
Naked City was an innovative television series which presented crime stories in a semi-documentary form. It ran from 1958 to 1963 and featured an impressive array of well-known stars as guests. Its theme was written by George Duning, who had a long and successful career scoring for television and film after beginning as a trumpeter in Kay Kayser’s big band in the 40s. Jamal’s recording of the song was made at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, the club where Cannonball Adderley had earlier produced one of the most groundbreaking live albums in jazz (The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco, which was released in 1959). Recording engineer Reice Hamel was regarded by his peers as the pioneer of on-site remote recording. The six songs on Jamal’s Naked City Theme were captured by Hamel over a three day run at the club in June, 1964.
At this time Ahmad Jamal was beginning to perform more original material, moving away from standards. His two compositions on Naked City Theme are the highlight of the album. His exciting nine-minute tribute to Miles Davis may have been a thanks to the trumpeter, who began performing one of his originals, “Ahmad’s Blues” nearly a decade earlier (it appeared on Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet in 1956). “One for Miles” highlights not only Jamal’s dexterity, but his accompaniment as well. Bassist Jamil Sulieman stayed with him for several years and the two work together intuitively on the live recordings they made. Chuck Lampkin had previously played drums with Dizzy Gillespie. His jazz career is unfortunately brief, because he was exceptional whenever recorded — Lampkin left jazz and embarked on a second career in broadcasting, becoming one of the nation’s first African-American news anchors when he took a position at WIVB in Buffalo, New York in 1970.
In this 1985 interview for MPR, Jamal explains that while the early live recordings at the Pershing established him, he was criticized for not playing original material. He also explains that his current performances were almost entirely of his own compositions. He was especially productive in the several years following Naked City Theme, writing some of his most memorable originals, including “Extensions” and “The Awakening.” Both of those are title songs from great albums — the discography on Jamal’s official web page lists more albums than we care to count, but we sure would like to collect more of them.
Our copy Naked City Theme has a couple unfortunate skips, which we’ve done our best to edit out in the recordings heard here. This is an album we bought at Let It Be Records, which closed in 2005 after sixteen years on Nicollet Avenue. There were often a lot of great jazz albums to be found there, especially during those years when many people were replacing their records with CDs.