AHMAD JAMAL "It's Magic" Dreyfus

Friday, December 26, 2008

AHMAD JAMAL "It's Magic" Dreyfus

THOUGH A STUDIO session, "It's Magic" opens with the crackling energy of a live recording, featuring pianist Ahmad Jamal in fine form and alert company.

The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master recharges "Dynamo," an original and previously recorded composition, with a typically percussive attack and an arrangement that has the melody turning back on itself or suddenly unspooling like a long ribbon. All the while bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad, Jamal's longtime trio mates, and guest percussionist Manolo Badrena make for a highly interactive rhythm section. On "Back to the Island," another Jamal tune, the same lineup vibrantly underscores the polyrhythmic ties between Afro-Caribbean and Crescent City grooves.

The performances throughout "It's Magic" may not swing in the conventional sense, but there's plenty of forward motion and festive beats, with Badrena often playing a significant role on "Arabesque" and other tracks. The album's pleasures, however, aren't always so animated. The title track, composed by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, is a prime example of Jamal's soulful balladry, and much the same can be said for the pianist's genuinely distinctive interpretation of "The Way You Look Tonight."

Closing out the disc are two new original compositions: the evocative ballad "Papillon," with Muhammad providing fluttering brushwork; and "Fitnah," which juxtaposes Jamal's resounding chords and melodic finesse.

-- Mike Joyce

Appearing at Blues Alley today through Wednesday (202-337-4141, http://www.bluesalley.com). Shows start at 8 and 10 p.m. through Tuesday, 6:30 and 10 p.m. Wednesday.

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