The music that Ahmad Jamal was making in the early 1970s spoke of kinder days ahead. Jamal's jazz at that time was more cushion than intellect. Things were looking up: a bloody decade of civil rights demonstrations was behind us, Vietnam was in the nation's rearview mirror, and the Nixon White House was unraveling. Gordon Parks ushered in the age of blaxploitation films with Shaft, Alex Haley would have his Pulitzer for Roots, and rap would emerge by the end of the decade. Through that timeframe Jamal made utopian records that bespoke a vision of peace and lazy Sunday afternoons. Groups like the Crusaders and Steely Dan were getting the message.
"Ahmad Jamal," once wrote record producer Rachel Elkind, "is never banal." An elegant sentiment that sums up the gravitas of the pianist. In the '50s Jamal's playing was loaded with impenetrable chords that he moderated with a lightning-fast right hand. Some historians claim that it was Jamal who introduced the piano trio to jazz; others said that they could hear the entire breadth of jazz history in his playing. Even with that level of respect, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award, Jamal never got his public due in the way that his contemporaries did. But those contemporaries listened -- a young Miles Davis would cite Jamal as a major influence on the development of his own modal creations.
Decades later, when I began to listen in earnest, Jamal's music was still percussive but less straight-ahead, a gauzy high of melodies blended with a jazz master's interplay of anxiety and disengagement. It was the right sound at the right time. "When turbulence goes on in the world," he told an interviewer once, "that is when music soothes the savage beast."
AHMAD JAMAL, Anthology, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, December 6-8. 619-595-0300. $18 to $63.