(I’ve said this in the past but I don’t want artists dying to be only time I actually write new content. I guess I don’t spend enough time giving flowers to the living; I really need to work on that. –O.W.)
I always feel awkward paying tribute to an artist that I initially discovered through sampling because I’d never want to reduce an artist down to “they recorded some cool samples.” I mean, there are many artists I only know because of samples but I think it’s safe to say that pianist Ahmad Jamal, who passed away this weekend at the age of 92, profoundly transcends any kind of reductive label (except for “one of the greatest of all time”).
All this said: yeah, I discovered Jamal through sampling (shout out Pete Rock and No I.D. especially). By the time I began to go sample hunting in the mid-’90s (s/o to the Sample FAQ!), the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s The Awakening was absolutely essential to track down. It wasn’t just that that it was bountiful with samples — I may be wrong but I feel like no other jazz LP gave us so many different loops — but it was such a sublime album from beginning to end.
That’s especially true for me given that my love of jazz has usually centered on piano ballads, starting with Ellington and Monk, and then Jamal came into my life. Without question, I’ve spent more time listening to The Awakening than any other jazz LP out there. That said, I want to make it clear that Jamal’s greatness goes far beyond any single LP; to quote from that NYT obit by Eric Grode: “Mr. Jamal made his mark with a stately approach that honored what he called the spaces in the music.” It’s why he’s been so revered over the decades. His music can be as melancholy as it is joyful and above all else: soulful.
That’s why one of my favorite songs by him isn’t actually from The Awakening, it’s the title song off of his 1968 solo LP, Tranquility. For a while, I used the start of his playing (20 seconds in) as my phone’s alarm music because I thought “I want to wake up to this. What a way start the day.” Tonight, and many nights to come, I’ll be listening still.
Safe journey Mr. Jamal. And thank you.
(This is the 14th issue of the Soul Sides Stray newsletter)